Today marks the first year since former governor Benigno R. Fitial resigned, yet historian Don Farrell believes that Fitial’s “rise and fall” will have “a lasting effect on CNMI politics and government” for generations to come.
Farrell said he did not expect Fitial to step down on Feb. 20, 2013, in the face of impeachment. Fitial resigned just days before the start of his impeachment trial at the Senate on charges of corruption, felony, and neglect of duty.
“From what I had seen of him during his political career, I expected him to fight it out. I was impressed when he graciously handed his letter of resignation to his longtime friend and colleague Eloy Inos, then quietly walked away,” Farrell told Saipan Tribune.
Fitial’s resignation exactly a year ago today paved the way for then lieutenant governor Inos to become the new governor in a leadership change like no other in the history of the CNMI or any other U.S. territory.
Inos, also a former Finance secretary, is currently in Washington, D.C. for a series of meetings and won’t be back until Feb. 28.
Farrell said the event of a year ago “will be remembered long into the future by both sitting as well as aspiring politicians.”
“Here was a charismatic, indigenous Carolinian who was born immediately after World War II, graduated from Mt. Carmel, earned a degree in Business Management from UOG [University of Guam], then returned to Saipan to serve his people,” Farrell said, as he narrated Fitial’s rise to power.
Fitial was elected to the 1st CNMI Constitution Convention, became chief administrative officer of the 1st NMI Legislature and was then elected to the CNMI House of Representatives in the 2nd Legislature, becoming its speaker during the 3rd, 12th and 14th NMI Legislatures, Farrell said.
The former governor also founded the Covenant Party in 2001, was elected governor of the CNMI under his own banner in 2005, then masterminded his re-election in 2009, the historian added.
“This is a remarkable political record that brought pride to the Carolinian community of Saipan. This is why the rise and fall of Benigno Fitial will have a lasting effect on CNMI politics and government,” Farrell said.
In 2012, a minority group in the House of Representatives led by now Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) introduced a historic impeachment resolution that was easily thumbed down by Fitial’s allies in the House leadership back then.
Members of the public, which private citizen Glen Hunter described yesterday as the once “silent majority,” made their voices heard through pro-Fitial impeachment rallies and through the ballot.
Voters in the 2012 elections almost wiped out all incumbents and would-be politicians aligned with Fitial, handing the House leadership to pro-impeachment lawmakers. Deleon Guerrero and others introduced another impeachment resolution that this time around succeeded in impeaching Fitial and moving the process to the Senate in February 2013.
Farrell said the impeachment was a people’s movement that garnered the support of legislative leaders “who had the courage to stand up for what is right.”
“Despite all the good things that Governor Fitial may have done during his rise to power, it was not enough to absolve him of the perception of wrongdoing that pervaded his authoritarian style of governing,” he said.
Farrell likened Fitial’s resignation to that of former U.S. president Richard Nixon, among other things.
“His resignation, just like the resignation of former U.S. President Richard Nixon and the conviction of Guam governor Ricardo J. Bordallo, brought disgrace on his people and the Commonwealth,” he said.
Fitial’s impeachment, resignation, and replacement by his former lieutenant governor are covered in the last chapter of Farrell’s new NMI history book.
“To not report it would be an error of omission,” the historian and longtime Tinian resident said.
Criminal charges, however, were filed against Fitial for matters related to the impeachment charges.
Former representative and former KSPN2 reporter Tina Sablan said that Fitial, like other former public officials implicated in conspiracies with former attorney general Edward Taylor Buckingham III who was convicted and sentenced yesterday, has yet to be brought to justice. Buckingham was found guilty of seven of eight charges also related to the charges against Fitial, on the eve of the anniversary of Fitial’s resignation.
Sablan said Fitial remains at large and must be brought back to the CNMI to face charges.
Fitial is in the Philippines, his wife’s home country.
Farrell said some might say that the best lesson learned from Fitial’s resignation is the old adage that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Others, he said, will say simply that “No man is above the law.”
“Personally, I hope it means that all government and political leaders will remember that it means ‘The people are watching,’” Farrell said.
As to the Inos administration since Feb. 20, 2013, Farrell said “Governor Inos has done a commendable job of ‘taking the bull by the horns,’ to use another old saying.”
“He stepped into the Retirement Fund debate and came out with a resolution, perhaps not what everyone wanted but at least a salvation for those who feared the worst,” he said.
Farrell added that it appears the emergency declaration for the Commonwealth Utilities Corp., initially set in 2008, may finally be lifted now that there will be a full quorum for a functional board.
But Inos, according to Farrell, still faces the difficult questions regarding a long-term solution to CNMI energy problems and adequate funding for the hospital.
“Nevertheless, Governor Inos appears to be returning power to the people. Of course, the real judge of his performance will be ‘The people’ when they vote this November,” Farrell added.
Inos announced that he is running for governor in November, along with Senate President Ralph Torres (R-Saipan) under the Republican Party, the same party that Fitial helped found and led before forming the Covenant Party and then leaving it only to return to the GOP.
Inos’ Republican Party, however, still has many of the elected officials, other government officials and private citizens that used to not only align themselves with Fitial but also defended the former governor as the impeachment process against him was raging on.
But, as Hunter said yesterday, the CNMI community has discovered that they had nothing to fear as they “stood up against those who violated our public trust and with the help of others in positions of power, we were able to hold abusive officials accountable.”
Hunter said for years, there was an overwhelming sense of fear in the community “that was felt by a large silent majority.”
He said that fear was instilled through intimidation tactics by elected officials and those who held positions of authority.
“I encourage all members of the community to continue to be vigilant and report all acts of corruption that they see occur or know had occurred. Justice may take some time but it does eventually come,” he added.