The CNMI turned a new page in its political history yesterday when the 18th House of Representatives impeached Gov. Benigno R. Fitial on 13 charges of corruption, felony, and neglect of duty, setting up a first trial of its kind in the Senate on whether the governor should be removed from the post he has held for seven years so far.
Five more articles of impeachment will be voted on by the House today, although Fitial can be convicted by the Senate on any of the 18 total charges.
“Today we rewrite our political history and shape our political destiny,” House floor leader Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan) told Saipan Tribune.
House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan), the main author of the impeachment resolution, said the governor's impeachment in the House is one thing; a conviction by the Senate is another.
Fitial, 68, is the first CNMI governor to be impeached. He is also the first governor of any U.S. territory to be the subject of impeachment.
If the CNMI Senate convicts him on at least one of the 18 charges, Fitial would become only the ninth United States governor to be impeached and removed from office; the last was Illinois's Rod Blagojevich in 2009.
Saipan Tribune learned that the governor visited Rota on the eve of the House's impeachment vote, for his Republican Party's appreciation party on island, along with senators.
At least six affirmative votes in the nine-member Senate are needed to convict Fitial on any of the 18 articles of impeachment.
Facebook was immediately abuzz soon after the first article was adopted, generating comments that were mostly supportive of the impeachment.
During yesterday's House session, the governor was impeached by a vote of 16-4 on 12 charges.
He was impeached by a vote of 16-3 with one abstention from minority leader George Camacho (R-Saipan) for conflict of interest on one charge.
Camacho's brother was the delegate candidate that former attorney general Edward Buckingham hosted at the governor's private residence in 2010, and is among the issues in the impeachment resolution.
The articles adopted by the House yesterday included those in connection with the unauthorized release of a federal inmate to give the governor a massage at his private residence in the wee hours of the morning in January 2010, and the signing of a sole-source $190.8-million power purchase agreement.
The House also impeached him yesterday on charges related to the awarding of a sole-source ARRA management contract worth almost $400,000; failure to remove a former attorney general for violation of federal and local election laws; conspiring with others to shield the same former AG, now a fugitive from justice, from being served a penal summons in connection with criminal charges filed against him; and failure to timely appoint members of the Civil Service Commission.
Fitial's four allies in the House-Camacho, Reps. Felicidad Ogumoro (R-Saipan), Teresita Santos (R-Rota), and Richard Seman (R-Saipan)-defended the governor by mostly blaming others for the governor's decisions that led to the charges of corruption, commission of a felony, and neglect of duty.
The four voted “no” to the articles of impeachment deliberated on yesterday. In one article, Camacho recused himself.
Yesterday's session was marked by heated debates between the Fitial-aligned minority bloc and those from the leadership. Tempers flared as both sides tried to argue their position.
Only at least 14 affirmative votes are needed to move the impeachment process to the Senate for trial.
Sixteen co-authors of the impeachment resolution voted “yes” to each of the 13 articles yesterday, more than the required two-thirds vote.
The “yes” votes came from House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan), Vice Speaker Frank Dela Cruz (IR-Saipan), floor leader Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan), Reps. Antonio Agulto (IR-Saipan), Anthony Benavente (IR-Saipan), Roman Benavente (IR-Saipan), Trenton Conner (Ind-Tinian), Lorenzo Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan), Cris Leon Guerrero (Cov-Saipan), Janet Maratita (IR-Saipan), John P. Sablan (Cov-Saipan), Tony Sablan (IR-Saipan), Mario Taitano (IR-Saipan), Ray Tebuteb (IR-Saipan), Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan), and Ralph Yumul (IR-Saipan).
The minority bloc submitted to the full House yesterday their eight-page position on the impeachment resolution, saying they “object” to the articles of impeachment.
Fitial's allies questioned the use of evidence and information obtained by the 17th Legislature and retained as House property for the impeachment resolution introduced in the current 18th Legislature.
Rep. Tony Sablan (IR-Saipan) asked whether statutes prohibit this, and the House counsels said “no.”
The minority bloc also wanted Rep. Janet Maratita (IR-Saipan) to be recused from participating in the impeachment process or, in the alternative, on Article 9 of the resolution, because Maratita filed a taxpayers' lawsuit against the governor and others over their signing of a $190.8-million power purchase agreement.
Maratita said there is no conflict of interest, and that she is not financially benefiting from the lawsuit she filed on behalf of taxpayers.
In their defense of the governor, the Fitial-aligned minority pointed out that, on Article 1, a charge of felony related to the federal inmate's unauthorized release for the governor's private massage, it was the former Corrections commissioner who decided to “take matter in her own hands” as shown by her testimony to bring the inmate to the governor's private residence.
Fitial said he only learned of his masseuse's incarceration on or about Jan. 8, 2010, when he was trying to reach her. At the time, the governor said he was experiencing excruciating back pain that only his masseuse could temporarily relieve.
House leadership members, including the speaker, vice speaker, Sablan, and Rep. Cris Leon Guerrero, separately said the fact of the matter is that the governor instigated the release of a federal inmate and he benefited from that unauthorized release by receiving a massage from that inmate in his private residence.
Hours were spent just on this matter, which was a subject of five articles of impeachment.
Former governor and representative Froilan Tenorio was the first among seven individuals to stand up and address the House members during the public comment period at the beginning of the session.
“The attempt to impeach Gov. Benigno Fitial is a misguided use of a raw political power that will bring shame to the Commonwealth and negatively affect our democracy for years to come,” Tenorio said.
He said there is no doubt that the new House majority has the votes to impeach the governor.
“The question is whether they should do so. They should not, and here is why,” he said, as he went on to cite his reasons.
He said impeachment should be reserved “for proven violations of the most serious offenses” and only be used “to protect the people of the Commonwealth, not for a political vendetta.”
“The rest of the world will look at us as no better than countries where political power ranks higher than the rule of law,” he said.
Florence Sablan, a private citizen, made reference to the “heavenly father” phrase that another individual used during her testimony last year, referring to the governor.
Sablan said if the governor is the “earthly father, he should obey laws.”
“This is the body that passes laws and the governor signs it into laws. And he is expected to obey laws. That's why I'm supporting the impeachment and maybe when we were more active in the past, it would have happened to another governor [too],” she added.
Former representative Joseph Palacios said any Tom, Dick, and Harry can bring the governor to court if they think he committed wrongdoing. He said the governor is not “perfect.”
During deliberation by House members, Seman also said, “The governor is not god, he cannot see everything in a perfect manner.”
The others who made public comments supported impeaching the governor, including Glen Hunter, Luis John Castro, and Ray Quichocho.
Hunter thanked the 16 House members “who displayed fully that our community is no longer ruled by fear at the hands of an abusive, neglectful, and tyrannical leader. I am positive that after the display of professionalism and the thorough research and documentation provided by the Special Committee that the senators will now do the right thing.”
The House minority leader, Camacho, told reporters said he hopes that the senators would have “higher standards than we have here.”
Hunter said it was “a bit disheartening watching the minority members.”
The crowd in the House chamber and gallery was much thinner compared to the first time the House voted on a similar impeachment resolution in October 2012.
Among those in the gallery was 80-year-old Jose Guerrero, of Fina Sisu, saying he came to Capital Hill “to watch the proceedings, the voting on impeachment.”
“At my age, I can only be a witness, not a participant. I am glad to see the younger generation at work,” Guerrero told Saipan Tribune. He said the CNMI “made history today.”
Department of Public Safety police officers were visible, to ensure safety and security.
Impeachment in the United States is the Legislature's expressed power that allows for formal charges against a civil officer of government for crimes committed in office; in this case, the CNMI governor.
The actual trial on those charges against Fitial, and his subsequent removal on conviction of those charges, is separate from the act of impeachment itself.