A special panel reviewing an impeachment resolution against Gov. Benigno R. Fitial adopted late yesterday afternoon two articles on felony charges related to the unauthorized release of a federal inmate in January 2010 to massage the governor in his private residences. The rest of the total 18 articles of impeachment will continue to be reviewed and voted on today.
Fitial can be impeached in the House and convicted in the Senate on only one of the 18 articles of corruption, neglect of duty, and felony.
He is the first governor in CNMI history to be the subject of an impeachment resolution under special committee review. One impeachment resolution was voted down last year by his allies in the 17th House, but the 18th House leadership revived the impeachment measure this year.
Articles 1 and 2 of House Resolution 18-2 were adopted separately by a vote of 4-1 with two absences.
The four who voted “yes” to each of the two articles were Special Investigating Committee on Impeachment chair Rep. Tony Sablan (IR-Saipan), Vice Speaker Frank Dela Cruz (IR-Saipan), Rep. Cris Leon Guerrero (Cov-Saipan), and Rep. Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan).
Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro (R-Saipan) voted “no” to the two felony charges.
Rep. Teresita Santos (R-Rota) was present during yesterday morning's meeting that began shortly after 9am, but she was absent in the afternoon when the voting was made. Rep. Ray Tebuteb (IR-Saipan) was off-island because of an emergency in the family.
H.R. 18-2's main sponsor is Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan), while the 15 other members of the leadership are co-sponsors.
Sablan, in an interview, said he's pleased with the way the first official meeting of the impeachment committee turned out.
“We were able to put two articles to a vote,” he said, adding that they had all the documents, video footage, and other materials supporting the allegations.
Once the committee votes on all the 18 articles of impeachment, they will then make a report and recommendation to the full House.
The full House will vote on each of the 18 articles of impeachment, instead of voting on the resolution as a whole.
Only at least 14 “yes” votes are needed in the 20-member House to impeach the governor and move the process to the Senate for trial.
The number of co-sponsors of the resolution-16-is more than enough to impeach the governor and move the process to the Senate, where at least six affirmative votes are needed to convict the governor.
Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan) said he's glad that the committee took the time to review the evidence, including the video footage of the testimony to the previous committee last year, before deliberating and voting on the first two articles.
Deleon Guerrero was the chairman of the previous impeachment committee. However, the impeachment resolution was easily voted down by the then majority aligned with the governor.
But a silent majority voted out most of the governor's allies during the Nov. 6 mid-term elections, and the pro-impeachment lawmakers and candidates held close to their heart a “public mandate” to “finish what they started, which is to impeach the governor.” They said a silent majority spoke loud and clear that they will no longer tolerate corruption and lack of transparency in government.
Yesterday marked the first official meeting of the impeachment panel, beginning at shortly after 9am.
The committee adopted the Rules of Procedure and went straight to discussing the articles of impeachment.
The panel discussed nine articles on neglect of duty related mostly to the governor's failure to timely appoint a Supreme Court chief justice, members of the Civil Service Commission and the Public Utilities Commission, and heads of the Departments of Public Safety, Public Works, and Public Lands.
Dela Cruz said these are “clear cut” articles because of the absence of appointees for these positions.
Rep. Teresita Santos, however, asked that the committee subpoena documents from the administration, the Office of the Attorney General and other agencies to prove whether there are no appointments made to these positions during the period covered by the allegations.
After a short recess so that members of the leadership could hold a closed-door meeting, Dela Cruz made a motion to subpoena documents from the Fitial administration, OAG, and the agencies involved. Moreover, the committee wrote a letter to the Senate and House clerks requesting relevant documents.
Sablan said the agencies have three working days to provide subpoenaed documents. The committee will then vote on these articles on neglect of duty.
While most of the day was spent reviewing evidence and deliberation, it was only at past 5pm when voting on the first two articles on felony was made.
That was preceded by almost a two-hour review of the video footage of the testimony provided by Department of Public Safety and Department of Corrections officers last year, and more than an hour more of deliberation.
Dela Cruz, during deliberation in the afternoon, said it was “clear” that a federal inmate was illegally released from prison “to perform services for the governor” in violation of an agreement between the CNMI Department of Corrections and the U.S. Marshal Service on federal detainees.
“I don't know of any individual here or elsewhere where they can call someone to have a prisoner released to perform a service. We have a hospital to take care of emergencies and illnesses. The governor chose to have a detainee, not only a detainee but a federal detainee, removed and escorted to his residence for such a service and Mr. Chair and members, if this isn't a sign of evidence to convince us that this may be impeachable then I don't know what is,” Dela Cruz said.
The governor's affidavit itself, along with the testimony provided by witnesses last year and documents obtained, confirmed that the governor had severe backache that led him to look for his masseuse which he later found out was in prison. He requested the then Corrections commissioner for the release of the inmate and brought to his residence in Gualo Rai.
Rep. Cris Leon Guerrero (Cov-Saipan), a former police officer, echoed Dela Cruz's statements.
Article 1 alleges that on or about Jan. 8, 2010, the governor planned and conspired with others to commit and committed the federal felony of instigating or assisting escape in violation of 18 USC 752.
This federal statute states partly, “Whoever rescues or attempts to rescue or instigates, aids or assists the escape, or attempt to escape, of any person arrested upon a warrant or other process issued under any law of the United States, or committed to the custody of the Attorney General or to any institution or facility by his discretion, shall. if the custody or confinement is for extradition, or for exclusion or expulsion proceedings under the immigration laws, or by virtue of an arrest of or for a misdemeanor, and prior to conviction, be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.”
Ogumoro, during discussions, said the governor was not charged by any federal agency related to the inmate release that happened two years ago.
She said she has problem with the language of the resolution. Ogumoro and Santos are from the four-member House minority bloc aligned with the governor or his Republican Party.
At 5:19pm, Dela Cruz made a motion to vote on Article 1.
Four voted “yes” and one voted “no” and two were absent.
Article 2, also a felony charge, alleges that on or about Jan. 8, 2010, Fitial planned and conspired with others to commit and committed the federal felony of “officer permitting escape in violation of 18 USC 755.”
This U.S. statute states, “Whoever, having in his custody any prisoner by virtue of process issued under the laws of the United States by any court, judge, or magistrate judge, voluntarily suffers such prisoner to escape, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both; or if he negligently suffers such person to escape, he shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.”
Dela Cruz also made the motion to vote on Article 2 at 5:34pm. Again, four voted “yes,” one voted “no” and two were absent.
The impeachment committee meeting resumes at 9am today.