The first three witnesses in a House committee’s investigation into Gov. Ralph DLG Torres’ expenditures were a no-show yesterday, instead asking for subpoenas that would compel their presence at the hearing.
The three—Police Officer 1 Jomalyn S. Gelacio, special assistant for Administration Mathilda A. Rosario, and the Department of Finance’s finance and accounting director Bernadita C. Palacios—wrote separate but identical letters to Rep. Celina R. Babauta (D-Saipan), who chairs the House Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee, asking her to issue a subpoena for their attendance at the hearing.
Gelacio was previously assigned as security detail for first lady Diann Torres.
All seven JGO Committee members, including Rep. Blas Jonathan Attao (R-Saipan), approved Rep. Christina E. Sablan’s (D-Saipan) motion to skip the 1309 letters that the JGO Committee earlier issued for Gelacio, Rosario, and Palacios, and instead issue subpoenas to all the potential witnesses that will be called before the committee. Letter 1309 in the Commonwealth Code refers to the acquisition of information by other lawful means.
Babauta said they will issue subpoenas to Gelacio, Rosario, and Palacios for them to appear before the committee on the fifth day after they have received the subpoena.
Gelacio, Rosario, and Palacios told Babauta in their letters dated Tuesday that Babauta’s request for testimony dated June 17 was not a subpoena, that although Babauta’s letter is on her official House of Representatives letterhead, it is merely a letter without the effects of the laws that she cited.
Gelacio, Rosario, and Palacios said that in order to preserve their rights pursuant to all laws, they are requesting that the committee to issue a subpoena for their attendance at the hearing. They said the subpoena should provide sufficient notice of the hearing date, time, and place.
In addition, the three said the subpoena should provide them with a “general statement of the subject matter of the committee’s investigation or inquiry” to ensure they can prepare properly and adequately for their testimony.
Gelacio, Rosario, and Palacios also invoked their right to have a lawyer present with them at the hearing. They said they have requested the Office of the Attorney General for legal representation but have been advised that they will need to find private counsel to represent them. The three said the OAG advised them of their rights to be paid by the CNMI government for hiring private counsel.
They requested 30 days from their June 22 letter to ensure the contract with their attorneys goes through the required process for approval.
The three said once the contract of their attorneys is approved, they will advise the JGO of the names of their respective lawyers and authorize communication on their behalf.
At the start of the hearing, Babauta disclosed that she received a copy of the three witnesses’ letters while they were in their delegation session yesterday morning.
She said the actions of Gelacio, Rosario, and Palacios to submit their letters at the very last minute “is a complete betrayal and a total lack of seriousness” about the CNMI Constitution, laws and the separation of powers and the carefully balanced relationship of checks and balances between the Legislature and the Executive Branch.
Babauta said the question before the committee is a matter of Torres’ expenditures of public funds. “This is a public matter, not a private act,” she pointed out.
Babauta said they can either strengthen the Constitution and laws by giving it content and meaning, or they can weaken it by tolerating and encouraging evasions and breaches of trust on the part of the Torres-Palacios administration.
She said neither Torres nor his defenders have not denied the facts as they have not challenged, nor have they attempted to discredit the facts brought before the committee.
“They have admitted, in effect, the governor did, in fact knowingly commit these acts,” Babauta said.
The JGO’s investigation pertains to Torres’ expenditures related to COVID-19 procurement, Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC matters, and travel and reimbursements.
Rep. Edwin Propst (D-Saipan) disclosed that they got a copy of a non-disclosure agreement apparently between the Office of the Governor and the Department of Public Safety as first party, and all Customs, Airport, DPS officers that were at one point assigned as personal security detail as the second party.
Propst said whatever Torres decides is confidential, with no regard to the security detail and no freedom to speak out. He described the NDA as disgusting and deplorable.
He urged Babauta as JGO Committee chair to communicate with Attorney General Edward Manibusan and ask him if this non-disclosure agreement did come from the Office of the Attorney General.
“If not, then we need to find out where this came from and [whether] these security detail and police officers were instructed o…coerced to sign off on this document that prevents them from speaking freely,” he said.
Sablan said she is troubled with the information they have received on the first day during which they were supposed to hear testimonies from the witnesses that the committee called.
She said the non-disclosure agreement makes it appear that it really up to the governor to have sole ownership of confidential information, where confidential information is so broadly defined that it covers any information, observations, documents, and any activities of the officer or the governor.
She said according to this nondisclosure agreement, any breach would cause irreparable harm and they could be sued.
Sablan said forcing law enforcement officers to sign a nondisclosure agreement, pressuring them not to cooperate with a lawful investigation is obstruction of justice.
She said they should demand further clarification from DPS, the Office of the Governor, and the OAG. She requested that they have an audience with Attorney General Edward Manibusan and that they move forward with issuing subpoenas to all of witnesses.
Rep. Richard Lizama (D-Saipan) asked the public to be patient to allow them to do their job. “I know that the CNMI people have been waiting for this,” Lizama said.
Lizama asked all witnesses to cooperate. “Do give us the most utmost honest testimony,” he said.
Rep. Donald M. Manglona (Ind-Rota) said this is not a political tactic as this is really their efforts to look into the expenditure of public funds.
Manglona said being part of the minority bloc in the last Legislature they came up with a minority report that looked at all these expenditures.
“It brings all the questions in terms of how are we safeguarding moneys coming into the CNMI and how it being spent,” said.
Manglona said it’s one of the reasons why he introduced House Bill 22-33 and that is to ensure that the Legislature is part of the process in ensuring that American Rescue Plan Act money that is coming in is spent for its rightful purpose and making sure that it’s meant for the public.
Babauta said they have no other choice now but to issue subpoenas. “Mark my word, I will be willing to take it further than that. This committee is serious about its obligation to get to the truth of these documents,” she said.
Babauta said the fact that the witnesses and the now the non-disclosure agreements are being pressured on to government employees, paint a picture of a guilty conscience on this administration.
Sablan then moved to issue subpoenas to the three witnesses to appear before the committee within five days.
She said between now and five days from now, she would like to request that they get that audience with the AG and DPS.