The 18th House of Representatives impeached Gov. Benigno R. Fitial on a total of 18 charges, with the adoption of the five remaining articles yesterday. Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan) said it is going to be an “uphill battle” in the Senate where a trial will be held to determine whether the governor will be removed from office or not.
Fitial, president of the Republican Party, is the first governor in the CNMI and any other U.S. insular area to be impeached.
His four allies in the 20-member House voted “no” to almost each of the 18 articles of impeachment.
House minority leader George Camacho (R-Saipan) abstained from voting on one of the 18 charges for conflict of interest.
Each of the 18 charges got more than the required two-thirds or 14 “yes” votes.
The individual vote on the last article came in at 11:28pm yesterday, but this was still followed by discussions and, ultimately, the adoption of the full impeachment resolution, House Resolution 18-2, House Draft 1.
The House speaker is set to sign off on the impeachment resolution's transmittal letter today to officially move the impeachment process to the Senate.
“The process is not over. It's a two-step process and we've only gone as far as pushing it to the Senate,” said Deleon Guerrero, adding, however, that the CNMI is “at a turning point.”
Deleon Guerrero is the main author of the impeachment resolution, co-authored by 15 other House leadership members.
'Vigorous, meticulous preparation'
Deleon Guerrero and others' attempts to impeach the governor during the 17th Legislature failed because the previous House leadership was aligned with the governor or his Republican Party.
After the impeachment bid failed to succeed in the previous Legislature, Deleon Guerrero said he was asked, “Is it over?” to which he responded, “Let the people decide.”
The GOP's candidates were almost wiped out during the Nov. 6 elections, and almost all pro-impeachment candidates and incumbents won seats.
These lawmakers now say they have a “public mandate” to finish what was started and to stand up against corruption and lack of transparency in government.
“As we've seen, the people did send a strong message. We have just carried the ball from where we left off to where we are now. It's an uphill battle in the Senate. You saw the discussions, the deliberations,” Deleon Guerrero said.
The minority bloc members, he said, feel that “some if not most of the allegations are not substantiated and just hearsay.
“I think the proof will be in the Senate. I can tell you that we will be preparing vigorously and meticulously for the trial at the Senate. I can tell you that much,” he told reporters after the session yesterday.
At the session
Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro (R-Saipan), one of the governor's allies in the House, said she's still not convinced that the governor committed acts that warrant his impeachment.
Instead of impeaching the governor, she said the task at hand should be to “find money” to turn the economy around, save the Commonwealth Health Center, the NMI Retirement Fund, the Public School System, and create jobs for the unemployed “roaming around the streets,” among other things.
Vice Speaker Frank Dela Cruz (IR-Saipan) said the minority bloc should stop making excuses for the governor.
Rep. Cris Leon Guerrero (Cov-Saipan) and later the speaker cited negative consequences of not having a Department of Public Safety commissioner, for example, including low employee morale and inability to set leadership goals that will help solve murders, burglaries, and other crimes.
He said the involvement of police officers in shielding a former attorney general from being served a penal summons also calls into question the leadership at DPS when there was no permanent commissioner.
The speaker, for his part, said one of the negative consequences of a lack of a permanent DPS commissioner is the lack of accountability.
“We cannot hold one person accountable,” he said.
Some members also shared their thoughts about the impeachment process at the House.
Floor leader Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan), for example, applauded the speaker and members “for taking on this most difficult task and pain of conducting an open and transparent public inquiry as regards to the ethical conduct of our chief executive in a small and close knit community such as ours.”
“Today we will rewrite our political history and shape our political destiny,” he reiterated.
Articles of impeachment
The 16 co-authors of the impeachment resolution voted “yes” to almost each of the 18 articles of corruption, felony, and neglect of duty.
Rep. Roman Benavente (Ind-Saipan) abstained from voting on one of the articles of neglect of duty yesterday-the governor's failure to appoint a Supreme Court justice from October 2011 to August 2012.
Benavente later said there was no conflict of interest, but he felt that abstaining from voting would justify what he feels about this charge based on the reading of the impeachment resolution.
During the resumption of its session yesterday, the House voted on Articles 13, 14, 15, 17, and 18.
They are neglect of duty charges related to the governor's failure to timely appoint for Senate consideration the following: Public Utilities Commission commissioners, Supreme Court justice, Department of Public Safety commissioner, Department of Public Lands secretary, and Department of Public Works secretary, respectively.
Fitial, 68, was impeached on Monday on charges related to the unauthorized release of a federal inmate to give him a massage at his private residence in the wee hours of the morning in January 2010, a few days before he was to take his oath of office for a second term, as well as the signing of a sole-source $190.8-million power purchase agreement.
He was also impeached on charges related to the award of a sole-source ARRA management contract worth almost $400,000.
The governor was also impeached on charges related to his failure to remove a former attorney general for violation of federal and local election laws, and conspiring with others to shield the same former AG, now a fugitive from justice, from being served a penal summons.
If at least six of the nine-member Senate convicts Fitial on at least one of the 18 charges, he will be removed from the post he has held for seven years so far.
When that happens, Fitial would become only the ninth United States governor to be impeached and removed from office; the last was Illinois' Rod Blagojevich in 2009.
Only a few members of the public watched the House proceedings yesterday.
Among them was the governor's sister, Gregoria, who declined to comment. “So? Say whatever you want to say,” she said.
Department of Public Safety police officers continued to provide security during the duration of the House session.
The four “no” votes on almost all of the articles of impeachment were from the governor's allies: Minority leader George Camacho (R-Saipan), Reps. Felicidad Ogumoro (R-Saipan), Teresita Santos (R-Rota), and Richard Seman (R-Saipan).
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 administration has yet to issue a statement about the House's impeachment of the governor. Press secretary Angel Demapan has gone off-island for a regional leadership workshop and is not expected to be back until next week. Fitial has not designated an acting press secretary.