House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan) said yesterday that the Special Committee on Impeachment that will review, prepare a report, and make recommendations on a resolution impeaching Gov. Benigno R. Fitial for 18 allegations of corruption, neglect, and felony will have at least seven members, including at least two from the governor-aligned minority bloc. The process, however, will not be as lengthy as it was during the previous Legislature when dozens of individuals and documents had to be subpoenaed for evidence-gathering.
“The work of the Impeachment Committee in the House is very important because the committee report would become evidence during the trial at the Senate,” Deleon Guerrero told Saipan Tribune.
Rep. Ray Tebuteb (IR-Saipan), who will be serving on the impeachment panel again, said the committee work “will be a continuation of the process that was already initiated in the 17th Legislature.”
“The committee work should not be taken lightly. I have always been ready to work on the committee,” he added.
At the same time, the 26-page impeachment resolution now has 16 sponsors, with Rep. Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan) signing off on it yesterday afternoon.
The number of sponsors to date is more than enough to impeach the governor because only at least 14 “yes” votes in the 20-member House are needed to impeach him and move the process to the Senate for trial.
Deleon Guerrero and 14 other members of the leadership signed and pre-filed House Resolution 18-2 within hours of their inaugural session on Monday. At the time, only Villagomez-among the 16 leadership members-didn't sign as sponsor of the resolution because he said he won't sign on anything he has not read yet.
“I read the resolution and I signed it (Tuesday afternoon),” Villagomez said.
Villagomez was among the nine who voted “yes” to the impeachment resolution last year. After majority of the voters removed most of the governor's candidates for the House in the Nov. 6 mid-term polls, a resolution to impeach him is more than likely to pass this time around.
The Fitial administration itself said earlier that the governor recognizes he is up against a supermajority in the House, and “the number of cosponsors pretty much indicates that the process will move up to the Senate.”
Deleon Guerrero said he won't be among the seven members of the new Impeachment Committee but as a speaker, he said he can always participate in its meetings.
He said among the members of the committee which he will officially appoint once House Resolution 18-2 is formally introduced are Tebuteb, Reps. Tony Sablan (IR-Saipan) and Chris Leon Guerrero (Cov-Saipan).
Sablan and Tebuteb were members of last year's impeachment panel, while Leon Guerrero will be on the panel for being chairman of the Committee on Judiciary and Government Operations.
The speaker said he will reach out to the governor-aligned minority bloc to have at least two of their members serve on the Impeachment Committee. Among the minority bloc members, Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro (R-Saipan) served on the previous impeachment panel, while Rep. Teresita Santos (Ind-Rota) and House minority leader George Camacho (R-Saipan) are re-elected members. Rep. Richard Seman (R-Saipan) is a freshman lawmaker.
Santos, in a phone interview from Guam, said yesterday she has not been approached by the leadership yet about the impeachment panel.
“If I would be requested, then I will consider it and not reject it right away. That's something for me to consider if they approach me,” she said.
Deleon Guerrero said evidence gathered by the previous Impeachment Committee during the 17th Legislature will be used, along with evidence related to three new allegations included in the revived impeachment resolution.
These new allegations refer to the governor's failure to appoint a Department of Public Safety commissioner, a Department of Public Lands secretary, and a Department of Public Works secretary. Deleon Guerrero said the governor willfully and continuously ignores the law.
“These three allegations of neglect are straightforward; they're clear-cut. Up to this day, he has not appointed any of them for Senate consideration. Just like the other neglect allegations for failure to appoint a chief justice and members of the Civil Service Commission and Public Utilities Commission which are also clear-cut, the committee need not call in people because they're clear-cut,” Deleon Guerrero said. Tebuteb echoed this.
Deleon Guerrero, along with most members of the House leadership, said since the Nov. 6 mid-term election, the term “public mandate” was often used to describe the public's overwhelming support for impeachment and that their message was that “corruption, obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and the lack of transparency and accountability will not be tolerated.” Deleon Guerrero is the main author of the defeated and new impeachment resolution.
Among the articles of impeachment are in connection with Fitial's use of a federal inmate temporarily taken out of prison to give him a massage at his house during the wee hours in January 2010, the award of an almost $400,000 sole-source ARRA management contract to a former Cabinet official within days of resignation in 2010, failure to remove a former attorney general after it became clear that the AG used public funds and other resources for a political campaign or gathering, and the signing of a 25-year, $190.8-million power purchase agreement with Saipan Development LLC.
Martin Sakisat, a private citizen, said this is not the right time to impeach the governor but rather a time to prioritize reviving the economy, fixing the healthcare system, lower power rates, and save the NMI Retirement Fund.
The House leadership said it is prioritizing all these issues as well.
Fitial is so far the only governor in CNMI history to be the subject of a pre-filed and/or introduced impeachment resolution.
The 16-member House leadership pushing for impeachment consists of so-called Independent Republicans and members of the Covenant Party. Former speaker and lieutenant governor Diego Benavente and Sen. Pete Reyes (IR-Saipan) were among the brains of the IRs and the now coalition leadership in the House.
Benavente is also the first person to publicly call on the governor to step down long before the first impeachment resolution was prefiled last year.
Benavente, in an interview on Monday, said he, Reyes, and the rest of the coalition of Independent Republicans and Covenant Party members are glad to be able to take over the leadership to be able to do more to improve the CNMI.
Benavente said he and Reyes felt that to turn things around, they needed to approach individuals who would work together for the betterment of the CNMI and to make up the majority in the House.
“We went out and looked.for key individuals we thought could win and could have the guts to go against the governor because they would have to. And we couldn't fill the entire House with IRs. We're very grateful that Covenant candidates and the leadership of the Covenant Party felt the same way and so that together we called ourselves the opposition with the goal to take over the leadership. We're so happy we've accomplished what we set to begin with up to this point. It's the challenge of getting the leadership on these issues and improve our islands,” he said.