Gov. Ralph Torres will face trial in the Senate after the House of Representatives today impeached him on all six charges filed against him by Rep. Celina Roberto Babauta in December.
The impeachment brings to a close a more-than-two-year effort to hold the governor accountable following the federal raids on his office and home, and the revelation of thousands of pages of documents showing he broke several Commonwealth laws on hundreds of occasions since his predecessor, Gov. Eloy Inos died, and Torres ascended to the governor’s office.
The governor was impeached (essentially, a political indictment evidencing breaches of public trust that will be tried in the Senate) on two charges of theft, two charges of corruption, and two charges of neglect of duty. The CNMI Constitution states governors may be impeached and removed from office for treason, commission of felonies, corruption, and neglect of duty. A two-thirds vote of the 20-member chamber is required for any charge (article of impeachment) to be sent to the Senate for trial.
15 members voted to impeach the governor on all six charges: Speaker Edmund Villagomez, Vice Speaker Blas Jonathan Attao, and Representatives Celina Roberto Babauta, Sheila Babauta, Joel Camacho, Vicente Camacho, Richard Lizama, Corina Magofna, Donald Manglona, Edwin Propst, Cristina Sablan, John Paul Sablan, Leila Staffler, Denita Yangtemai, and Ralph Yumul.
Four republicans consistently voted against impeachment: Representatives Roy Ada, Angel Demapan, Leepan Guerrero, and Patrick San Nicolas.
“These people just can’t handle the truth,” activist Fabian Indalecio said of the four republicans. “These people are just voting on what’s good for them and for their party. I hope that in the next couple of days the governor will resign.”
Rep. Joseph Arriola voted against impeachment each time by abstaining on all six votes.
“The governor has committed acts of corruption with impunity,” Rep. Donald Manglona said, as the House was debating Article II of the impeachment. The article accuses the governor of stealing from the people of the Commonwealth, when he made thousands of dollars worth of personal purchases, then had the CNMI Department of Finance reimburse his expenses.
“The blatant disregard for public funds,” Mr. Manglona said, “paints a real picture of the lack of regard for our laws. This money went to pay for the governor and his wife’s vacations.
The House also debated the governor’s numerous off island trips via first class accommodations. It is illegal in the CNMI for public officials to utilize public funds to fly first or business class. Several counts of the corruption charges discuss detail Mr. Torres’s violation of the law several times over a six-year period. The issue bled into Article V: Neglect of Duty of the articles of impeachment, which was defended by Rep. Sheila Babauta.
“In the span of six years, he took 122 trips by plane and 85 by boat all on taxpayer dollars,” Sheila Babauta said. “During this time of natural calamity, disaster, and pandemic, we needed a leader, and we got a dictator. He was complicit. He chose to be involved or to look the other way.”
Trial in the Senate
Torres now is only the second governor in Marianas history to be impeached. Former Gov. Benigno Fitial was impeached nearly nine years ago on February 11, 2013 on far fewer charges of corruption. He resigned prior to facing trial in the Senate.
If Mr. Torres does not resign, then the Mariana Islands will witness its first trial of a sitting governor in the CNMI Senate. According to the CNMI Constitution, the Senate, once it receives the official articles of impeachment from the House, will prepare to hold a trial that Chief Justice Alexander Castro will preside over. In that trial, for which rules will be drafted (rules were drafted following the impeachment of Gov. Fitial), managers, who will be selected from among the members of the House will act as the prosecutors, and Gov. Torres will have the opportunity to defend himself.
The nine senators – three each from Rota, Tinian, and Saipan and a majority belonging to the governor’s political party – will act as jurors, with the vote of six members in the affirmative on at least one of the six articles of impeachment for a conviction. If convicted on even one of the charges (articles), Gov. Torres will be automatically removed from office and disqualified from ever serving in elective office in the CNMI for the rest of his life.
Removal from office and the line of succession
Ralph Torres will be the first governor of the Mariana Islands to be removed from office if he is convicted of any of the articles of impeachment. He also will be the first American governor to be removed from office since California Gov. Gray Davis two decades ago.
If he is removed, Lt. Gov. Arnold Palacios will ascend to the governor’s office, and Senate president Jude Hofschneider will become the lieutenant governor.
Rep. Corina Magofna gave an impassioned speech aimed at the Senate and calling for the governor’s removal from office. She also turned her attention to the governor himself, with a plea for him to save the Commonwealth the trouble and resign from office.
“It is undeniable and brings much sadness that the ones who suffered the most has been you, our people,” Ms. Magofna said. “The pain we feel I hope will not be inherited by the future generations.”
“We must lead with integrity, humility and love for our people,” she said. “The vicious cycle of corruption must end.”
“To Gov. Torres,” Ms. Magofna concluded, “you hold the most prestigious seat for our people, but now you have been charged with violating that trust. You managed to bastardize and taint that sacred pledge. Please keep your promise and resign from office.”