Lt. Gov. Arnold Palacios Wednesday afternoon said it is up to the Commonwealth Legislature whether to depose the CNMI governor. “Should the governor be asked to resign, or otherwise be impeached for his flagrant abuse of power,” Rep. Celina Roberto Babauta asked the lieutenant governor directly.
“I would leave that to the members of this body to discern what should be done,” Mr. Palacios said.
He testified before the CNMI House of Representatives throughout Wednesday that Gov. Ralph Torres’s use of federal government resources has been improper, the utilities the governor used that the taxpayers paid for was excessive, that the travel, lodging, and personal security arrangements for the governor and his wife were not right, and that the governor’s personal spending for which taxpayers reimbursed him have been, “amazing.”
Asked by Rep. Vicente Camacho whether Mr. Torres is misusing public funds, the lieutenant governor responded, “It would appear to be. It points that way. Maybe one of these days, he would come to this chamber and clarify everything. Until that day comes, that dark cloud still lingers over these expenditures.”
His assessment came following hours of testimony he gave to the House Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee regarding his knowledge of the illegal purchase of first class tickets for the governor and the first lady, personal expenditures for which Torres was reimbursed by taxpayers, the use of a “swarm” of police officers by Torres and his family as personal security details, a total of 85 boating trips the governor took for which federally-funded boats and personnel were used, seemingly-excessive utilities payments made for the governor’s personal residence, and sole source contracts on millions of dollars in pandemic-related purchases.
Mr. Palacios expressed disappointment, disagreement, and bewilderment regarding these activities.
While the lieutenant governor in the earlier days of the Torres Palacios administration has previously approved some of the governor’s expenditures, he said he was never made aware when approving travel documents that the Commonwealth government would be purchasing first class tickets for the Torreses, or that taxpayers would foot the bill for personal expenditures. He said, at the time, he trusted the governor’s assertions that the spending he undertook was done in the best interests of the Commonwealth.
“Obviously, with [these documents], it throws all this trust out the window,” Mr. Palacios said.
Much of the testimony drew upon Mr. Palacios’s experience working under the administration of the late Gov. Eloy Inos. In comparing Mr. Inos’s fiscal prudence against Mr. Torres’s lavish spending style, the lieutenant governor many times expressed incredulity at the governor’s actions that have been revealed through financial documents first disclosed by Kandit. Those records formed the basis of the current legislative investigation.
Rep. Celina Roberto Babauta, the chairwoman of the committee, asked the lieutenant governor whether he was aware and what he thought of documents showing the Commonwealth government paid for two hotel suites, one for the governor and the other for the first lady on one trip the couple took together.
“I fail to understand why, when the first lady is traveling with the governor, she would need an extra room,” Mr. Palacios said. “If you’re traveling for personal, it cannot be on public dime.”
Mr. Palacios, unlike all the government officials who testified before him, arrived in the House chamber without an attorney. Asked by Ms. Babauta why he did not have an attorney present he replied, “I believe the questions I will answer will not require me to have counsel.”
The lieutenant governor proceeded to answer every single question by every committee member without pause.
Rep. Tina Sablan brought up a receipt for lunch at a Saipan hotel for which Mr. Torres sought and was reimbursed. On the receipt was a note stating he met with a resident on official business. Ms. Sablan then brought up an affidavit signed by the man’s daughter, who was at the restaurant on that day with her father. She swore neither she nor her father had lunch with Torres.
“I would have probably scratched it out and sent it back,” Mr. Palacios said, referring to the request for reimbursement and speculating how he would have handled its disapproval had he known the official representation was a lie.
Ms. Sablan brought up a slew of issues and questions relating to the governor’s use of federally-funded Boating Safety Program boats and officers to take a total 85 boating trips during his term. Ms. Babauta pointed out some of the trips have been referred to as moonlight cruises, loveboat cruises, and happy hour sunset cruises.
“Is this an illegal use of federal resources,” Ms. Sablan asked the lieutenant governor.
“On the face of it, yes,” he responded. “Those grants are very purpose-specific, objectives-specific. Yeah, improper.”
Committee members showed the lieutenant governor a year’s worth of receipts for which Mr. Torres was reimbursed by the taxpayers for the power and water used at his personal residence.
“Over a one-year period, the Commonwealth paid about $100,000 for the governor’s personal utilities payments,” Ms. Sablan said. She pointed out his monthly bill ranges from $1,000 to up to $16,000.
Ms. Sablan brought up one reimbursement memo for $6,630.90 paid to Mr. Torres for utilities paid between October 2018 to February 2019, or the five months following Supertyphoon Yutu. The receipt attached to the memo shows the governor paid the bill at one time in cash.
“Does that payment in such a large amount of cash strike you as odd,” Ms. Sablan asked Mr. Palacios.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Have you ever paid any of your bills with such a large amount of cash,” she followed.
“Not in my wildest dreams,” he replied.
Addressing criticism he may receive for being forthcoming, Mr. Palacios told the committee during closing statements, “I’ve already seen in social media there are people saying I threw the governor under the bus. I didn’t throw him under the bus. He ran in front of the bus.”