‘A travesty of justice’

Sablan says Pangelinan was an ‘ambush’ witness

Rep. Christina Sablan (D-Saipan) speaks during the impeachment trial of Gov. Ralph DLG Torres in the Senate during the public comments portion yesterday. (Ferdie De La Torre)

Rep. Christina Sablan (D-Saipan) said yesterday that what’s happening in the Senate is not an impeachment trial at all, but a “travesty of justice.”

Speaking during the public comments portion of Gov. Ralph DLG Torres’ impeachment trial, Sablan, who is running for governor in the November 2022 election, said that Torres was supposed to be on trial in the Senate as he was charged by the House of Representatives with six Articles of Impeachment for theft, corruption, and neglect of duty.

She also noted that Ross Garber, a member of Torres’ legal team, was not sworn in as a witness nor was he on the witness list, but he appears to have testified regarding the factual basis of Article 6 of the Articles of Impeachment, yet offered no citation whatsoever or any CNMI case law to support his assertions that Sablan said were all drawn from federal contexts regarding the separation of powers.

Sablan said the Senate has a solemn obligation to deliver due process in a fair trial.

She said there were no prosecutors because the Senate leadership rejected the team of House prosecutors that House Speaker Edmund S. Villagomez (Ind-Saipan) had appointed.

The lawmaker said there was no evidence because the Senate leadership rejected the entire House impeachment record—all 8,000 pages and hours of video-recorded witness testimonies.

She said the Senate heard only the governor’s side through his defense attorneys.

Sablan agreed with Torres’ counsels’ statement that it is the House’s burden to prove the impeachment charges.

However, she said, the House’s hands were “unjustly tied” by Senate rules that were drafted by the governor’s counsel, in collusion with Torres’ allies in the Senate.

The lawmaker said because there were no prosecutors, there was no cross-examination of any of the governor’s witnesses.

“There were no House objections to the procedural violations, no rebuttals to the misinformation presented by the defense,” she said.

Sablan said the senators themselves were deprived of their right to freely ask questions of the witnesses because Senate President Jude U. Hofschneider (R-Tinian) compelled them to put all their questions in writing to him and him alone. She said Hofschneider screened their questions, censored some of them, and restricted follow-ups.

The lawmaker pointed out that nothing in the Senate rules requires the senators to reduce their questions to writing, but forcing them to do so anyway achieves the goal of frustrating any attempts by any senator to get to the truth.

She noted that the governor’s counsel had no such restrictions.

Sablan said the law is very clear that public funds shall not be used to pay for first-class travel for anyone.

She said Torres traveled first-class on taxpayer’s dime often with his wife, at least 54 times between 2016 and 2019 according to the records.

She said that Torres continued to fly first-class at public expense even after he was warned by multiple people to stop.

Sablan said everything that Torres’ counsels presented on Article 3 (corruption-unlawful first class travel) were mere distractions.

She said proposed regulations that purported to authorize first-class travel for the governor would not trump the law even if they were adopted.

The lawmaker said raising accusations about other government officials who supposedly traveled first-class too—without verifying whether those tickets were in fact paid by the government and not complimentary upgrades or paid out-of-pocket—is irresponsible and misleading.

She said the governor’s “surprise” witness, former Attorney General Investigative Division chief investigator Lawrence Pangelinan, testified that AG Edward Manibusan asked him to investigate Torres’ first-class travel in 2019.

Sablan said Pangelinan, whom she described as an “ambush” witness, stated he had opposed Manibusan’s request for an investigation targeting only Torres.

“Let’s stop to think about that. Most investigations are by their nature targeted,” she said, adding that in 2019 documents showing Torres’ lavish public expenditures, including unlawful taxpayer-funded first-class travel, began circulating widely.

On Article 1 theft of utility services and Article 2 theft of public funds, Sablan said House prosecutors would have questioned the mischaracterization of the record by Commonwealth Utilities Corp. executive director Gary P. Camacho.

She said they would have presented to the Senate the actual CUC billings for two of the governor’s private residences, including the 16-month period during which they overlapped.

“We would have shown the CUC memos confirming the governor’s multiple accounts, including the metered account tied to the piggery on the governor’s estate,” she said.

As to four counts of theft of public funds listed in Article 2, Sablan said the governor’s defense addressed none of them.

Had the House prosecutors been allowed, she said, they would have asked Glenna Palacios, the former senior policy advisor to the governor, specifically about Torres’ campaign rally in Oregon.

The lawmaker said Torres did not claim in his travel authorization that he was making an extra stop in Oregon in order to meet with CNMI constituents for the memorial service that Palacios described.

She said the defense totally skipped over three other counts of theft in Article 2.

Sablan said the would have presented evidence that shows Torres used public funds to pay for another campaign stop in Guam in June 2018.

She said they would have shown evidence that Torres fraudulently claimed reimbursement for fuel for a police boat, when the Department of Public Safety has an open account at a different gas station and there was no reason for the governor to pay out of his own pocket for this expense.

The lawmaker said Torres’ defense counsel tried to play up the supposed billion-dollar exposure value of the governor’s promotional boating expedition to the Northern Islands with his family and friends in the summer of 2020, in the middle of the pandemic.

She said that particular trip appears in Article 5 (neglect of duty) and it is presented in the context of more than 120 trips by plane and 85 trips by boat taken by Torres and his wife at public expense, totaling more than half a million dollars, during severe crisis and hardship for the people.

Sablan said the number of views from YouTuber Robert Arrington’s Deer Meat for Dinner videos is irrelevant as Article 5 is about the governor’s negligence.

As to Article 6, neglect of duty, she said the record is extensive, documenting the events leading up to the House holding the governor in contempt for failing to comply with a legislative subpoena to testify under oath, the House speaker making the referral to AG Manibusan, and ultimately the AG pressing charges.

Sablan said this mockery of a “trial” will end soon enough and that the verdict is already known.

She said truth and justice will not come from the Senate, but it may come through other means.

“One thing is clear: our quest for justice and accountability will not end with the Senate,” she added.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a senior reporter of Saipan Tribune. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has covered all news beats in the CNMI. He is a recipient of the CNMI Supreme Court Justice Award. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@Saipantribune.com
Disclaimer: Comments are moderated. They will not appear immediately or even on the same day. Comments should be related to the topic. Off-topic comments would be deleted. Profanities are not allowed. Comments that are potentially libelous, inflammatory, or slanderous would be deleted.