Security will be tight in and around the Legislature on Capital Hill today as the 18th House of Representatives votes on a resolution impeaching Gov. Benigno R. Fitial for 18 allegations of corruption, felony, and neglect of duty. This time, the odds are in favor of members who want to elevate the process to the Senate for a trial that will be unprecedented in CNMI history.
If all 16 co-authors of the impeachment resolution vote “yes” to any of the 18 allegations, that would already be more than the 14 minimum “yes” votes needed to proceed with a trial at the Senate.
Fitial is fully aware of the odds at the House, and has been busy preparing for his defense at the Senate trial.
House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan) said one of the reasons why the session was pushed back to today at 9am instead of Friday afternoon was to ensure the safety and security of the House members and the public attending the session.
“This is a contentious issue and the last time this happened, there were some incidents, a lot of disrespect in the gallery. I'm going to appeal to them that we conduct this as civil as possible, as respectful as possible, and to respect the right of the public to say their piece, good or bad, and this goes for both sides,” Deleon Guerrero said in an interview after a leadership meeting on Friday afternoon.
A vote on a similar impeachment resolution on Oct. 17, 2012, went through the night, marred by insults and personal attacks from people in the gallery and the slashing of tires of a vehicle belonging to a pro-impeachment advocate despite dozens of police officers in the area.
The four-member Fitial-aligned minority bloc is also expected to file its own statement opposing the impeachment resolution.
“It is only just and fair for members to thoroughly digest each of the articles of impeachment, including all documents and/or materials provided; hence render a fair and impartial decision based on admissible evidence,” Rep. Teresita Santos (R-Rota), told Saipan Tribune yesterday.
Santos, one of the four House members aligned with the governor and his Republican Party, said: “As a representative of the people, I would encourage attendance by the general public to witness the impeachment proceeding.”
Rep. Ray Tebuteb (IR-Saipan) said he expects a “cordial session” and hopes the public would participate and understand the process.
“I expect no opposition from minority and anti-impeachment friends,” Tebuteb added. He is one of the members of a special committee that reviewed the impeachment resolution.
The special committee, chaired by Rep. Tony Sablan (IR-Saipan), prefiled on Thursday afternoon its 51-page final report recommending passage of the impeachment resolution, in the form of HR 18-2, House Draft 1.
All 20 House members have been given copies of the committee report, which is up for action today. The special committee report is the first of its kind in the CNMI.
Rep. Trenton Conner (Ind-Tinian) said it would be appreciated if the public tunes in to the House session today. He added that House members are expected to “do what is right and just.”
Glen Hunter, a private citizen advocating change in government, said yesterday that he expects House members to “do the right thing and uphold the mandate of the people. .I expect the members of the Senate will do the right thing as well.”
“The last time this issue went to the floor for a vote, the majority was labeled a 'silent' one. After the election it is very clear that they are no longer silent, they are shouting,” Hunter said.
Deleon Guerrero, the main author of the impeachment resolution, said, “Let history judge” today's event.
“We are going to do our job,” he said.
Among the impeachment allegations relate to the unauthorized release of a federal inmate in January 2010 to massage the governor at his home, signing of a no-bid $190.8-million power purchase agreement and a no-bid almost $400,000 ARRA management contract, helping a former attorney general avoid a penal summons related to criminal charges, and failure to appoint key officials for Senate consideration, among other things.
House members will vote on each of the 18 articles of impeachment, instead of voting on the full impeachment resolution.
The governor can be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate on any of the 18 articles.
Rules and public comment
In the early part of the House session, there will be a public comment period wherein those in the gallery could comment on the issues on the agenda, including the impeachment resolution, House Resolution 18-2.
The House speaker said that members of the public will be given up to five minutes to comment on the items on the agenda.
Deleon Guerrero said the House sergeant-at-arms has coordinated with the Department of Public Safety to provide security.
“Let them say what they have to say and let the members take it into consideration, but please respect the rights of others, including the media, because we also saw there were insults. And basically warn them that if people don't respect this rule, they would be asked to leave the building,” he said.
Saipan Tribune tried to get comment from DPS, but as of press time, the department has yet to respond.
Deleon Guerrero added that “for security reasons,” the House leadership decided to hold the session on a Monday and at daytime.
“It's much harder for somebody to do that in the daylight hours. And avoid not only vandalism but also potentially fights or violence,” he said.
The House session will be aired live on Channel 60. It may also be aired on Channel 14.
In related news, Senate Vice President Ralph Torres (R-Saipan), chairman of the four-member Senate Special Committee on Impeachment, convened a first informal meeting on Friday afternoon wherein they set out their main goal, which is to formulate the rules that will govern the impeachment trial if and when the House moves the process to the Senate for trial.
Besides Torres, the other committee members at the meeting were Sens. Jovita Taimanao (Ind-Rota), Pete Reyes (IR-Saipan), and Frank Cruz (R-Tinian).
He said the rules are now being drafted by the members and the Senate legal counsels.
“As soon as the committee has formulated the rules of the [trial] proceedings, of the impeachment process, then this special committee will provide the rules to the whole Senate to adopt it,” he said. The committee will then be dissolved.
The rules might include a provision allowing the tapping of current and retired members of the Judiciary to serve as facilitator during the trial.
But Torres said the committee has yet to decide how such Judiciary member or members could be chosen.
He said if and when the House adopts the impeachment resolution and moves the process to the Senate, Senate President Jude Hofschneider (R-Tinian) will notify the governor that the Senate has received such impeachment resolution and give the governor time to respond.
Depending on the rules set by the committee, the response time for the governor could be a week or two.
The impeachment trial at the Senate will then proceed.
Torres is encouraging senators, especially members of the special committee, to watch the proceedings at the House today to better prepare them should the process move to the Senate.
In the nine-member Senate, at least six affirmative votes are needed to convict the governor.
With Sen. Juan Ayuyu (Ind-Rota) still behind bars, only eight senators are expected to vote.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Joey Patrick San Nicolas said the Office of the Attorney General does represent the government in civil proceedings.
“However, the Senate impeachment trial is not a civil proceeding, therefore, the OAG will not be representing the governor at the impeachment trial,” he told Saipan Tribune.
The AG has instead recommended to the governor to hire private counsels for his defense should the impeachment proceedings move to the Senate.