A special committee drafting the rules that will govern a historic impeachment trial said yesterday that Gov. Benigno R. Fitial will receive a speedy and fair trial at the Senate.
At the same time, Senate Vice President Ralph Torres (R-Saipan), who chairs the committee, said the rules will also prohibit the governor from communicating or meeting with senators and vice versa on the issue of impeachment to “respect” the process.
“We would like to give the governor a speedy and fair trial,” Torres told reporters yesterday after emerging from a closed-door meeting with committee members Sens. Pete Reyes (IR-Saipan), Frank Cruz (R-Tinian) and Jovita Taimanao (Ind-Rota), along with Senate legal counsels.
He, however, said the governor and senators can communicate on all other matters related to their responsibilities as elected CNMI leaders.
The House of Representatives impeached the governor on 18 charges of corruption, felony, and neglect of duty on Monday and Tuesday.
Fitial, president of the Republican Party, is the first impeached governor in the CNMI or any U.S. insular area.
A trial at the Senate will determine whether the governor will be convicted and removed from the post he has held for seven years so far.
During the trial, senators will serve as judges and an active or retired justice or judge will serve as facilitator or moderator.
Some House members will serve as “house managers” or prosecutor, while the governor will have his own legal defense team. He will not be represented by the Office of the Attorney General.
Torres said the committee intends to finalize the impeachment trial rules by Friday, so that the full Senate can consider and adopt it during its Friday session on Tinian. The committee has agreed that Torres will be the spokesperson for matters related to the rules.
Notification to governor
Senate President Jude Hofschneider (R-Tinian) is expected to soon formally notify the governor of the charges and give him time to respond to these allegations or articles of impeachment.
As of yesterday, neither Hofschneider nor Torres could say whether the time allotted the governor to respond to the allegations is one week or two weeks, as well as the start date for the impeachment trial.
The trial is not expected to drag on for months.
Torres said that giving the governor a “speedy and fair” trial means the trial will commence within two to three weeks from the time the governor receives the official letter from the Senate president.
He said this also gives senators and other parties involved ample time to review some 2,000 pages of documents from the prosecution and the response from the governor.
House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan) signed off on the official letter transmitting the duly-adopted House impeachment resolution to the Senate yesterday morning.
Senate clerk Dolores Bermudes received the House transmittal letter at 11am yesterday, officially moving the impeachment process to the Senate.
Torres said because this is an unprecedented trial in the CNMI, the committee is carefully drafting and reviewing the rules they will propose to the full Senate.
“We are trying to be as fair as we can and set also guidelines and a precedent for the next generation. We hope we never go through this. It's really not a fun procedure. It's never a win-win situation if you're put in this place but we have to do the right thing and I believe the Senate will do the right thing. And we're trying to cover as much angle as we can to address this issue,” he said.
He said the committee would recommend that the governor be present during the trial.
“In the Senate, our part here is to be fair and impartial. And what the senators will be hearing during the trial is evidence that will be presented by both sides,” he said.
Torres said all senators will be part of the impeachment trial and allowed to cast their vote.
“If there is a specific conflict on specific issues then we would like to hear that conflict and address it accordingly,” he added.
Of the nine senators, one is currently behind bars awaiting trial, Sen. Juan Ayuyu (Ind-Rota).
What to expect
Torres said the Senate intends to write to Supreme Court Chief Justice Alexandro Castro to ask him whether there are justices or judges that can help facilitate the impeachment trial. If there are, the Senate would request a list of at least three names.
The Senate will also ask retired justices and judges if they would be willing to serve.
Torres said from the names they will gather from the Judiciary and retirees, the Senate will select one.
At the trial, both the prosecution and defendant will be allotted time for their opening statements.
Both sides will also be heard on each of the 18 articles of impeachment.
The impeachment trial will be aired live on Channel 60 or Channel 14 or both.
“We will be fair and impartial,” Torres said when asked for a public message at this time.
The House speaker earlier said it is going to be an “uphill battle” in the Senate. Deleon Guerrero is the main author of the impeachment resolution and is expected to be among the “house managers” or prosecution team members during the Senate trial. He said they will prepare “vigorously” and “meticulously.”
In the United States and its territories such as the CNMI, impeachment 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 governor.
The actual trial on the charges against Fitial, and his subsequent removal on conviction on those charges, is separate from the act of impeachment itself.
Fitial, 68, was impeached on Monday on 13 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.
On Tuesday, he was impeached on five remaining charges of neglect of duty for failure to timely appoint officials for Senate consideration including a Supreme Court justice, commissioners, and department heads.
If at least six of the nine-member Senate convicts Fitial on at least one of the 18 charges, the governor will be removed from the post. Lt. Gov. Eloy S. Inos will become governor, and the Senate president becomes lieutenant governor.
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.
The governor could not be reached for comment; his office said he has full schedule this week. The governor has also not designated an acting press secretary.