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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Villagomez resigns
No decision yet on his replacement

Timothy P. Villagomez resigned from his position of lieutenant governor over the weekend after being found guilty of federal criminal charges on Friday.

A federal jury found Villagomez, former Commerce Secretary James A. Santos, and Joaquina V. Santos guilty of all charges relating to a scheme to defraud the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. through needless purchases of a de-scaling chemical called Rydlyme.

By resigning from office, Gov. Benigno R. Fitial said Villagomez made one of the most difficult decisions of his life.

“I recognize the enormous difficulties experienced by Lt. Governor Villagomez and his family at this time, and I admire the courage and fortitude displayed by Lt. Governor Villagomez in carrying out his last official act for the Commonwealth’s benefit,” Fitial said in a statement released yesterday. “I understand Tim’s decision. It is a decision he has made for his family—for his wife, six children, and grandchild—as well as for the people of the CNMI. I respect his decision and the efforts he will make to comfort his family, maintain his dignity, and restore a sense of normalcy to his life.”

Villagomez is the highest ever CNMI official to be convicted in a criminal case. He is the brother of Joaquina Santos, who is married to James Santos.

The administration is not prepared to announce an appointment to the position at this time, Charles Reyes, press secretary for the Governor’s Office, said yesterday.

“We’re taking it one step at a time,” Reyes said. “As you know, the Senate must be consulted. I expect there will be some discussion as early as (today) to resolve the issue. At this point we’re not prepared to make a statement.”

By next week, he said more should be known. He noted the conviction was announced on Friday.
“Things are happening fairly quickly,” he added.

Under the CNMI Constitution, whenever there is a vacancy in the Office of Lieutenant Governor, the governor must appoint a successor with the advice and consent of the Senate.

Reyes said there have been discussions on possible replacements, with most people assuming Finance Secretary Eloy Inos to be named to the position. Inos is running as lieutenant governor with Fitial in November’s election. This would create a vacancy in the Department of Finance that would need to be sorted out.

‘Always his decision’

Rep. Tina Sablan had called on Villagomez to resign after the indictment was handed down in August. She also introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives in February that would have created a committee to investigate the charges against Villagomez and report recommendations on whether there was cause for impeachment. The resolution failed to get enough votes to pass.

Press secretary Reyes said the decision to resign has always been up to Villagomez.

Even if Villagomez had not resigned from the office over the weekend, the Constitution states that no person convicted of a felony in any jurisdiction of the United States may hold the Office of Governor or Lieutenant Governor unless a full pardon has been granted. Villagomez would need a presidential pardon because the case was tried in federal court.

Santos voluntarily resigned from his post as Commerce Secretary in August, after he was indicted.

Fitial, in his statement, said he always enjoyed having a good working relationship with Villagomez, adding that he is grateful for the service the former lieutenant governor provided on the Water Task Force, the Coral Reef Task Force and the CNMI’s Military Task Force, as well as representing the CNMI at the Interior’s Island Business Opportunities Conference in 2007, and passing legislation in an acting capacity on numerous occasions.

“Most of all, I am grateful to Tim for the role he played when I underwent medical treatment during my first year in office as Governor. Tim capably handled the affairs of government during my absence and served the Commonwealth well during that time,” the governor stated. “In considering recent events, I hope that more people in the Commonwealth will consider the lasting impact that a court’s decision can have on a man’s life and family.”

Fast verdict

After less than six hours of deliberation, the jurors found Villagomez and James Santos guilty of conspiracy to defraud and to commit offenses against the U.S., wire fraud, theft concerning a program receiving federal funds, and bribery concerning a program receiving federal funds.

Joaquina Santos was found guilty of conspiracy to defraud and to commit offenses against the U.S., wire fraud, aiding and abetting to commit theft concerning a program receiving federal funds, and bribery concerning a program receiving federal funds.

U.S. District Court for the NMI Chief Judge Alex R. Munson set the sentencing for July 28, 2009. After the sentencing, the defendants will have 10 days to file a notice of appeal. As of Friday, it was not known if Villagomez and the Santoses would appeal.

The maximum penalty for wire fraud is 20 years in prison, while the other counts range from five to 10 years.

Munson allowed the defendants to remain free pending their sentencing.

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