A rearview look at some of the top stories of 2022


A dramatic November 2022 election

The hotly contested November 2022 general and gubernatorial runoff elections could’ve been likened to a television drama’s season finale—full of drama, unpredictable, and full of twists.

Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios and his running mate, Saipan Mayor David M. Apatang, of the unified independent team, eventually came out victorious by a big margin of 1,131 votes over Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and his running mate, Sen. Vinnie Vinson F. Sablan (R-Saipan), in the Nov. 25 gubernatorial runoff race.

In the Nov. 8 general election, Torres-Sablan topped the three-way gubernatorial race after garnering 5,728 total votes, or an 838-vote lead over Palacios-Apatang, which received 4,890 votes.

Since Torres-Sablan failed to get the majority votes after obtaining only 38.83% of the total votes, this paved the way for the Nov. 25 gubernatorial runoff race between Torres-Sablan and Palacios-Apatang.

In the CNMI’s brief runoff election history, incumbent governors usually easily win the runoff election because some defeated gubernatorial candidates would throw their support behind the incumbents.

This year, Rep. Christina E. Sablan and her running mate, Rep. Leila F. Staffler, of the Democratic Party, which got 4,132 votes, immediately conceded defeat and supported the Palacios-Apatang team in the runoff race.

Many people believed that that development doomed the re-election of Torres. Surprisingly, Daniel Quitugua, a long-time chairman of the NMI Democratic Party, resigned from the Democratic Party and announced his support to Torres-Sablan. Andrew Salas, a defeated candidate for a Senate Saipan seat under Palacios-Apatang team, also threw his support for Torres-Sablan.

In the Nov. 25 runoff race, Palacios-Apatang swept the votes in all 10 precincts on Saipan and prevailed in absentee voting, and Rota, defeating Torres-Sablan by a large margin of 1,131 votes.

Palacios and Apatang will take their oath as governor and lieutenant governor, respectively, at the Jan. 9, 2023 inauguration. (Ferdie de la Torre)

Torres is acquitted

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres was acquitted in May of six Articles of Impeachment, after four Republican senators voted “no” to the question whether there was clear and convincing evidence to warrant his removal from office.

Senate President Jude U. Hofschneider (R-Tinian), Sens. Francisco Q. Cruz (R-Tinian), Karl King-Nabor (R-Tinian), and Victor B. Hocog (R-Rota) found Torres not guilty of corruption and neglect of duty charges, which the Democrats-Independents controlled House of Representatives filed against Torres.

Minority bloc senators Paul A. Manglona (Ind-Rota), Teresita A. Santos (Ind-Rota), and Edith E. DeLeon Guerrero (D-Saipan) all voted “yes” despite the fact that the trial proceeded without a House prosecutor to try the case and present evidence.

Sens. Vinnie F. Sablan (R-Saipan) and Justo S. Quitugua recused themselves from participating in the Senate trial. Sablan was the running mate of Torres in the November gubernatorial election. The governor’s maternal grandfather is Quitugua’s mother’s sibling.

Last Jan. 12, the House impeached Torres after passing House Resolution 22-14, which was introduced by Rep. Celina R. Babauta (D-Saipan), who chairs the Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee that investigated Torres’ travels and expenditures of public funds. As of yesterday, the JGO Committee has yet to issue a report about the investigations. (Ferdie de la Torre)

CNMI raised the bar with Pacific Mini Games

The long-awaited 11th edition of the Northern Marianas Pacific Mini Games 2022, a nine-day sporting event from June 17 to 25 ended as spectacularly as it began. The first ever drone show signaled the start of the Games in its opening ceremony and a 20-minute or so fireworks display rocked the closing ceremony as the PMG flag was handed to Palau for the 2025 PMG. Even with many hindrances that postponed the Games to 2022 from the original date of 2017—Typhoon Soudelor in 2015, then Super Typhoon Yutu in 2018, and then the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic starting in 2020—the Pacific Games Council, along with the Mini Games Organizing Committee and the CNMI government, pushed through and made sure everything was ready for the CNMI to host its first ever PMG event.

In the medal tally after the Games, the CNMI placed third overall among the 20 participating countries, and collectively won 16 gold medals, 13 silver medals, and eight bronze medals, for a total of 38 medals. Rightfully, Pacific Games Council president Vidya Lakhan praised the CNMI during the closing ceremony at the Oleai Sports Complex for raising the bar in hosting the Northern Marianas Pacific Mini Games 2022 after overcoming many challenges. Over 1,800 athletes, officials, media, volunteers, and supporters of the 20 Pacific island nations, along with over 1,000 community members that crowded inside the sports complex and at the adjacent beach, banded together to witness a historic first in the CNMI. (Leigh Gases)

Criminal suit launched against Torres

The Office of the Attorney General filed a criminal lawsuit against Gov. Ralph DLG Torres last April, alleging theft, misconduct in public office, and contempt.

According to the lawsuit, Attorney General Edward Manibusan, through Chief Solicitor Robert Glass Jr., is alleging 12 counts of misconduct in public office and one count of theft relating to the issuance of airline tickets for business class, first class, or other premium class travel for himself and/or first lady Diann T. Torres. The case also alleges one count of contempt for failure to appear in compliance with a subpoena issued by a CNMI House of Representatives committee.

Following numerous motions seeking to dismiss the case, or to dismiss the prosecutors and defense attorneys, Superior Court judge pro temp Alberto Tolentino dismissed the contempt charges against Torres.

The case remains pending with a tentative jury trial date set for February 2023. (Kimberly B. Esmores)

Crowne Plaza Resort Saipan opens

Crowne Plaza Resort Saipan was officially unveiled to the public on Oct. 31 with a grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony at the newly revamped hotel in the presence of ranking Commonwealth officials in both the public and private sectors. This was the third iteration for the hotel that was initially called the Da-Ichi Hotel, and then became the Fiesta Resort & Spa Saipan, after which it went through several months of renovations that cost a total of $43 million and transformed the property into the Crowne Plaza Resort Saipan—a modern, island-inspired oasis with 422 rooms and five restaurants, all under the management of IHG Hotels & Resorts. Set to open in January 2023 are the Mai Teppanyaki and the Ataari Dinner Show. The resort remains a Tan Holdings Corp. property. In the grand opening ceremony, Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and first lady Diann Torres were joined by, among others, Tan Holdings president and CEO Jerry Tan, his wife, Lydia Tan, Crowne Plaza Resort Saipan general manager Robert Coates, Bishop Ryan Jimenez of the Diocese of Chalan Kanoa, and House Speaker Edmund S. Villagomez (Ind-Saipan) in cutting the ribbon that signaled the official opening of the resort. The occasion was also attended by key Crowne Plaza Resort and Intercontinental Hotel Group management that included Abhijay Sandilya, managing director of IGH Japan, and Thomas Mayrhofer, regional general manager of Crowne Plaza Resort Guam & Saipan. (Leigh Gases)

PSS returns to face-to-face classes

With the CNMI reaching a 94% rate of vaccinations at the time, Jan. 3, 2022, marked the date when the CNMI’s Public School System finally returned to normal face-to-face classes, with elementary schools and high schools returning to full in-person learning, while middle schools were on a cohort schedule until Jan. 10. An exception was made for Hopwood Middle School, which remained on a double session schedule.

The return to full in-person classes was made during a Board of Education meeting on Dec. 28, 2021, during which Education Commissioner Dr. Alfred B. Ada announced that PSS’ health professionals and PSS’ partners at the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. agreed that the CNMI’s high vaccination rate ensured a safe return to full in-person classes for PSS’ secondary and elementary school students.

Faced with the hesitancy of several students and parents when discussing the return of in-person classes, Ada and PSS worked closely with hesitant students and parents to assure them that adequate safety measures are in place in PSS schools.

The opening of the 2022-23 school year was also a watershed moment, when face masks became optional for all PSS campuses. However, PSS “highly encouraged” its stakeholders—teachers, staff, students, and parents—to consider their personal level of risk when deciding on mask-wearing. During that time, PSS’ schools and departments reached a 90%-plus vaccination rate, and in collaboration with local health partners, PSS opened up opportunities for testing and vaccination at certain school sites on a quarterly basis. (Chrystal Marino)

Dead body found in CK

The body of a man was found in a vacant lot near a market in Chalan Kanoa last Dec. 2, already in an advanced stage of decomposition.

The body of Damian Wenio was found decomposing in the jungles of the vacant lot next to Triple J Truckload Store earlier this month.

To date, an autopsy has yet to be conducted on Wenio’s body so the case remains under investigation.

However, from the state in which the body was found, the Department of Public Safety believes he died of natural causes. (Kimberly B. Esmores)

Two lethal stabbings seen in 2022

The year 2022 saw multiple murders, with two stabbings seen within the first half of the year.

On Jan. 1, the CNMI rung in the New Year with its first fatal stabbing.

Kong Ling Yang, 34, is currently facing charges of second-degree murder, assault with a dangerous weapon, and assault and battery after allegedly fatally stabbing Li SongZhi multiple times, killing him last Jan. 1.

Meanwhile, in another stabbing case, Huang Rui Jun, 49, has pleaded guilty to one count of voluntary manslaughter, and one count of aggravated assault and battery for stabbing two others back in May at the Paseo de Marianas. (Kimberly B. Esmores)

Return of community events

After a two-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the year 2022 saw the full-fledged and “un-masked” return of major events in the CNMI such as the Flame Tree Arts Festival, the Taste of the Marianas, Liberation Day celebrations, and welcomed the Fiesta Friday as a weekly community event.

• 41st Flame Tree Festival

Not only did the 41st Flame Tree Arts Festival celebrate the CNMI’s arts this year, but it was also held in memory of the CNMI’s artists who have passed away in the past two years. The late artists and their families were recognized at the opening ceremony, with promises to keep their memories and legacies alive. The three-day festival—held from April 29 to May 1—was also noted as the first festival of its kind to be held at the Sugar King Park and the adjoining CNMI Museum grounds in Garapan—a change from previous festivals that were either held at the Civic Center in Susupe or the American Memorial Park in Garapan. The new location meant that a section of Middle Road had to be closed to traffic. The event saw more than a thousand people from Saipan, Tinian, and Rota gather together in celebration of the arts, live performances, and food. There was also a sizeable delegation from Rota. The festival’s theme “Healing Through Arts”—was also fitting, given what the CNMI community has gone through the past two years with the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s Flame Tree Arts Festival was considered as the 39th, 40th, and 41st editions. More uniquely, this year’s edition consisted of a combined arts festival and a ukulele festival.

• 23rd Taste of the Marianas

Usually held in May, the Taste of the Marianas this year was moved to June to coincide with the Northern Marianas Pacific Mini Games and offer another tourist attraction for many visiting athletes, officials, and families from the 20 visiting countries participating in the Games, as well as continuing the annual celebration of local taste among community members.

This year’s event was larger than the last, with a total of 29 food vendors, four beverage vendors, arts and crafts, and nonprofit groups. Along with that were 30 groups that separately performed at the festival, with the island dances also promoting the CNMI culture to visiting individuals. Saipan Tribune spoke with several people visiting the CNMI during the event, and they were impressed by the flavors the CNMI offered, but most appreciated the fact that they were welcomed by residents. Another main highlight was that all social distancing and the wearing of face masks were made optional, and many residents were seen walking mask-free. The festival was held on June 18, 19, 24, 25, and 26, 2022, from 5pm to 10pm at Garapan Fishing Base in Kristo Rai.

• Liberation Day

This year’s Liberation Day festivities celebrated not only the 2022 festivities but also recognized the past two years that were uncelebrated. Held at the Garapan Fishing Base in Kristo Rai, the five-night celebration culminated on July 4 with the Liberation Day parade down Beach Road.

More than 60 businesses had booths at the festival grounds, giving the event a variety and mixture of both food and merchandise stalls, as well as amusement stalls. Many families, as well as individuals, could be seen enjoying the festivities.

The theme of this year’s event was “Honoring Our Legacy While Riding the Waves of Change,” and concluded with a 30-minute fireworks display at the Garapan Fishing Base. In the Best Float competition, a total amount of $15,500 was given in prize money to the 10 groups whose floats won in the 2022 Liberation Day Parade contest. Saipan Mayor David M. Apatang presented the prizes to the awardees at his office in Susupe a couple of days after the parade. The Commonwealth Bureau of Military Affairs’ float depiction of “Camp Susupe” took first place.

• Fiesta Fridays

Kicking off the start of a weekly community event, Fiesta Friday started this year on Sept. 9, 2022. On the first of the many Fiesta Fridays to come, the event’s starting night welcomed a crowd of over 400 people at its venue at the NMI Museum grounds, and since then, each Friday has accommodated a steady stream of folks at the grounds since. The NMI Museum remains the host of this event. (Chrystal Marino)

Rep. Camacho arrested

Rep. Vicente Camacho (D-Saipan) was arrested for allegedly assaulting Commonwealth Ports Authority employee Steve Koch.

According to Koch, Camacho conspired with two others to assault him while on an evening walk with his daughter.

A temporary restraining order was taken out against Camacho while the case remains pending with the Superior Court. (Kimberly B. Esmores)

Sale of IPI gaming equipment proceeds

The receivership against Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC pushed through last October, with the sale of IPI properties netting over $700,000.

Last October, the U.S. District Court for the NMI instructed court-appointed receiver Clear Management Ltd., to proceed with the auction of IPI’s gaming equipment with the first auction closing on Oct. 7.

To date, two auctions have concluded, netting over $700,000.

The next series of auctions is set to conclude in January. (Kimberly B. Esmores)

Contributing Author

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