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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Corruption, felony charges vs Fitial hurdle committee

All five felony and corruption charges against Gov. Benigno R. Fitial related to the January 2010 unauthorized release of a federal inmate so she could massage the governor in his private residence cleared the Special Investigating Committee on Impeachment last week. The process inches forward to a full House of Representatives vote that could come as early as next week, followed by an impeachment trial at the Senate.

One Fitial ally, Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro (IR-Saipan), repeatedly said Friday that the CNMI “benefited” from the inmate takeout, a statement that Vice Speaker Frank Dela Cruz (IR-Saipan) described as “downright insulting” and a “slap” in the people’s face.

“To say that the massage provided by a federal detainee in the wee hours [of] the morning benefited the people of the Commonwealth is a slap to the people’s face. I almost fell off my chair. Her statement is very irresponsible to say the least. It is downright insulting,” Dela Cruz, one of the seven impeachment panel members, told the Saipan Tribune.

Ogumoro defended the governor at every turn during Friday’s discussion on Articles 3, 5, and 7. She pointed to the governor’s 2010 affidavit stating that Fitial was suffering from severe back pain and the only masseuse he knew who could ease the pain temporarily was in jail.

“Ultimately, the people of the CNMI benefits by having a governor that’s not sick, who can do the job… I want the governor to be healthy,” Ogumoro said.

Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan) separately said it is “ludicrous” for anyone to suggest that the governor is justified in getting a massage from a federal inmate taken out of her cell in the wee hours of the morning.

He said severe back pain is “not an excuse” and does not justify the illegal release of an inmate. “It is like justifying breaking the law. No one is above the law,” he said, adding that the issue is not whether it’s justified, but whether it is authorized or legal.

Deleon Guerrero, the main author of the impeachment resolution, said the governor’s own affidavit and testimony of other individuals supported the felony and corruption allegations against him related to the inmate’s unauthorized release.

Rep. Cris Leon Guerrero (Cov-Saipan) asked a hypothetical question after Ogumoro defended the governor. He asked whether any government official in the CNMI could demand the release of his family physician, for example, if that physician has been jailed.

The governor’s office is not releasing additional statements at this time, saying if and when the process moves to the Senate, that would be the proper venue for the governor to defend himself.

How they voted

Three articles of felony and corruption related to the inmate release passed the impeachment committee by a vote of 5-1 on Friday morning.

Ogumoro voted “no” to Articles 3, 5, and 7.

Another governor ally, Rep. Teresita Santos (R-Rota), was excused from the meeting.

Other members of the committee voted “yes” to the three articles: chairman Sablan, Dela Cruz, Leon Guerrero, Rep. Ray Tebuteb (Cov-Saipan), and Rep. Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan).

The previous day, the committee also adopted the first two felony charges also related to the federal inmate release.

Friday afternoon was spent reviewing the video footage of testimony provided last year to the previous impeachment panel, on allegations of corruption and neglect of duty related to the governor’s award of an almost $400,000 sole-source ARRA management contract to a former Cabinet secretary within days of his resignation.

On Friday, Ogumoro asked a few times for a short recess so she could get from her office parts of the packets provided to impeachment panel members and requested additional documents and information.

If the rest of the 18 charges of felony, corruption and neglect of duty are voted on by the committee this week, then the full House of Representatives could start voting on each of the articles next week.

Fitial can be impeached and convicted on any one of the 18 articles.

At least 14 “yes” votes are needed in the 20-member House to move the impeachment process to the Senate. The impeachment resolution itself has 16 cosponsors.

A minimum of six affirmative votes are needed in the nine-member Senate to convict the governor.

The impeachment committee meetings continue and are broadcast live on Channel 60.

Fitial 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.

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