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Saturday, April 19, 2014

TODAY MARKS FIRST HOUSE IMPEACHMENT OF SITTING GOVERNOR
‘CNMI better a year after but…’

Today marks one year since the 18th House of Representatives completed the public-backed impeachment of former governor Benigno R. Fitial on 18 charges of corruption, felony, and neglect of duty. Now officials and citizens say the event helped the Commonwealth become better off socially, politically, and economically, although challenges still abound including 25-percent pension cuts and lack of government accountability in some areas.

House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan), main author of two impeachment resolutions co-sponsored by other members, said the impeachment process “pushed to the forefront” the issues of corruption, accountability, and transparency in government.

“Are we better off now a year after impeachment? I think the people are the real judge of that. I hope so, that what happened as a result of the impeachment has pushed the issue of corruption to the forefront, that it would not be tolerated, that government agencies and every branch of government exercise transparency to the maximum extent possible. Those are the kind of lessons I’m hoping we learn from,” Deleon Guerrero told Saipan Tribune yesterday.

At the House of Representatives, for example, the legislative process is “as open, as transparent and allow for as much public participation” as possible, he said.

The impeachment process against Fitial remains unprecedented in the history of the CNMI and any U.S. territory.

Fitial stepped down days before the start of his impeachment trial at the Senate. The trial would have determined whether or not he will be removed.

“People are no longer subjected to political intimidation and harassment. And to me, that shows we’re better off socially and politically. People are relieved. They have confidence in those who govern them and officials are held accountable for their actions,” Rep. Janet Maratita (Ind-Saipan) said, adding that another lesson is that “nobody is above the law.”

On Feb. 12, 2013, the CNMI House completed the impeachment of Fitial on 18 total charges—13 on the first day and five on the second day—moving the impeachment process to the Senate.

Maratita, one of the co-sponsors of the impeachment resolutions, is also the original brain behind a taxpayer lawsuit against a sole-sourced $190.8 million power purchase agreement between Fitial and Saipan Development LLC. The 25-year PPA was among the major issues contained in the impeachment resolutions. Last week, a court declared the PPA void from the beginning, which Maratita described as “a victory for the people of the Commonwealth.”

She said the CNMI is not necessarily better off financially as a result of the impeachment because the economy is dependent on tourist arrivals.

But officials and citizens said the impeachment process helped boost foreign investor confidence in the Commonwealth once again.

Glen Hunter, a private citizen advocate for an accountable and transparent government, said yesterday he believes that “the CNMI is better as a result of the impeachment that occurred a year ago.”

“We are better not solely because of the removal of Fitial but more importantly because of a removal of the sense of fear that so strongly gripped the people of the CNMI. A sense of fear was ingrained and instilled in our populace through bullying tactics and a twisted sense of respect for our public servants,” he said.

Silent majority has spoken

Hunter, who runs The Shack bistro and restaurant in Oleai, said over a year ago, “we as a community witnessed the silent majority among us find their voice and stand up for what was right and just.”

“That silent majority spoke out in opposition to corruption in the face of blatant attempts at intimidation and fear,” he said. “Today, in looking back I remember the large majority of individuals who did so much, each in their own way, to fight the government corruption that had become the status quo.”

He said he still remembers the “amazing feeling” he had when he received an email of the photo of Lily Aldan, “standing alone on the side of the road in Sadog Tasi with her ‘Honk for Impeachmen’ signboard.”

“I still get goosebumps. She was and is to me a visible marker of when the CNMI made the turn for the better and we as a community opted not to be a afraid and we all collectively realized that there was never anything to fear other than our continued silence,” Hunter added.

Rep. Tony Sablan (Ind-Saipan), also a co-sponsor of the impeachment resolutions, said people came together to fight corruption, which he said “should not be the norm” in the CNMI.

“And for me, because of what happened a year ago, people and investors have regained confidence in the government. I also believe that we as elected leaders and community members must not lose sight of what we helped bring about—trying to end corruption in government, restore confidence in government,” said Sablan, a former CNMI immigration director.

But he said there are continuing challenges such as those involving the Retirement Fund.

“We still have a long way to go but the impeachment was a major step taken,” he added.

Rep. Ralph Yumul (Ind-Saipan), a co-sponsor of the impeachment resolution, said in his view, “the trust in government is better.”

“The legislative branch is much more transparent than a year ago. Are things better? The economy has been slowly healing now. Most notable is the arrival numbers. Retirement is settled but [whether government] can live up to its obligation is yet to be seen,” he said. “As you are aware, healthcare is not affordable due to our ability to meet our obligation to Aetna which I think is an issue for the rate increase. CUC payment is not addressed to date. So we are still slowly healing with the decision made in the past.”

The freshman lawmaker said his outlook as a leader is to start addressing and resolving the issues before the government, “and not just a band aid approach.”

Rep. Trenton Conner (Ind-Tinian), also a co-sponsor of the impeachment resolutions, said there is a general sense of “ease” in the community after the impeachment process. But just like others, he said there are still lingering issues and concerns.

“People are having difficulty because of the 25 percent cut in pension, the unpaid interest in Retirement Fund contributions. But matters are being addressed, their concerns are being heard.

When Fitial stepped down on Feb. 20, 2013, then lieutenant governor Eloy S. Inos became the governor. Inos is set to mark his first year in office next week.

The one-year anniversary of the House impeachment of Fitial also comes at a time when former attorney general Edward Buckingham’s trial for criminal charges is ongoing. Buckingham is accused of crimes also in connection with the articles of impeachment leveled against his former boss, Fitial.

Investor-paid trips

While other officials are trying to be as transparent and accountable as possible, others are still finding their way.

Some members of the Senate and House have—in the past few months—been accepting trips outside the CNMI that are fully paid for by foreign investors but not fully disclosed to the public.

When asked about this, the speaker said he would recommend a change in the House rules to ensure accountability, transparency and to avoid conflict of interest on the part of House members.

He said he has asked House members to seek legal counsel’s advice on certain off-island trips.

“When asked, I do advice members to seek legal counsel comments and legal counsels would say, especially if it’s an investor that may be securing public lands that may require legislative approval, that is definitely not allowable,” Deleon Guerrero said.

Other government agencies and departments also have yet to be more transparent, including releasing to the public actual results of studies or reviews by federal agencies, for example, on their operations.

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