Five come to Torres’ defense

Impeachment trial may wrap up today; only 2 Articles of Impeachment left to be argued/presented

At the start of the impeachment trial Friday before the Senate, the counsels for Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres called five witnesses, including a former chief investigator of the Attorney General Investigative Division whose testimony was described by some supporters of Torres as “a nail in the coffin” to the Articles of Impeachment initiated by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. (Ferdie De La Torre)

The impeachment trial of Gov. Ralph DLG Torres in the Senate started Friday with the governor’s counsels calling five witnesses, including a former chief investigator of the Attorney General Investigative Division whose testimony was described by some Torres supporters as a “nail in the coffin” of the Articles of Impeachment filed by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.

Without a prosecutor in sight, the trial, which was presided over by Senate President Jude U. Hofschneider (R-Tinian), saw the lead counsel for Torres, Anthony Aguon, completing his presentation and arguments pertaining to four Articles of Impeachment. The trial will resume today, Monday, at 10am. Torres’ counsels are expected to wrap up their presentation today regarding the remaining two Articles of Impeachment.

The trial was livestreamed online. As of yesterday noon, the video of the trial has already generated 4,200 views on YouTube.

The Articles of Impeachment charged Torres with committing felony theft of utility services, committing felony theft, corruption for unlawful first class and business class travel, corruption for misuse of government resources, neglect of duty for negligence during crisis, and neglect of duty for contempt of the Legislature.

The witnesses called were Office of Grants Management grant administrator Epiphanio E. Cabrera Jr., former AGID chief investigator Lawrence Pangelinan, Commonwealth Utilities Corp. executive director Gary P. Camacho, former Torres senior policy advisor Glenna S. Palacios, and Marianas Visitors Authority managing director Prescilla M. Iakopo.

Pangelinan testified that Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios, Attorney General Edward Manibusan, and former attorney general Joey San Nicolas also traveled first class during the time Torres was traveling first class. Pangelinan was supposed to be the first witness, but he arrived late, Saipan Tribune learned.

Pangelinan said that Manibusan directed him that only Torres shall be investigated, which he said he had opposed as it should be across the board as there were many other government officials who flew premium class at the time. He said he however, reluctantly obliged when Manibusan called him and asked for the status of the investigation.

Camacho testified that Torres did not commit theft of utility services and that the Office of the Attorney General did not investigate Torres for such alleged theft.

Camacho said he later learned from his staff that former governor Juan N. Babauta had two CUC accounts being paid concurrently when he was the governor, and that information was not discussed during the House Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee hearings.

Aguon noted that JGO chair Rep. Celina R. Babauta (D-Saipan), who introduced the House impeachment resolution, was Babauta’s executive assistant.

Palacios testified that she was with the governor and two others on a trip to Oregon and Alaska in April 2018 for official purposes and not for political event. She said the trip enabled the governor to meet with the Western regional director of the Office of Defense local community cooperation and that it yielded approximately $3 million for the CNMI.

Iakopo testified that the MVA board of directors approved a budget of $59,000 for promotion of online influencer/Youtuber Robert Arrington of Deer Meat for Dinner, but the actual expenses only reached $49,800. Iakopo said Arrington produced 20 videos not only about the Northern Islands, but also Saipan, Tinian, and Rota and that these generated 35 million views and counting. She said the 35 million views translate to advertising exposure value for the CNMI in the amount of $1.2 billion.

Aguon was joined at the trial by Gilbert Birnbrich, who sat beside him as counsel for the governor. Washington D.C.-based lawyer Ross Garber, a known impeachment trial expert, was not present but Saipan Tribune learned that he will appear virtually today to address count 6 of the Articles of Impeachment.

Torres, in a statement Friday, thanked his supporters for their continued show of support since the proceedings began in the House of Representatives.

“I want to thank them all for their time, efforts, and commitment, from showing up to the first hearings to dismiss in the Senate, to the official hearings now,” Torres said.

The governor said he can’t thank all of the supporters enough for standing by him, his wife, and family’s side as they go through this process.

“We would not be as strong as we are without their support. To see the overwhelming love and encouragement is what drives us every morning to continue to do good for our Commonwealth,” he said.

Torres’ supporters put up a long tent near the Legislature’s parking lot. The tent was covered with banners that read “RESPECT MY VOTE. IMPEACHMENT FOR WHAT?”, “NO IMPEACHMENT,” and “STAND UP, SPEAK UP! TOGETHER WITH GOVERNOR TORRES!”

Torres’ wife, Diann, family members, relatives, supporters, some Cabinet members, and government employees, watched the proceedings from a big screen TV placed under the tent. The governor was in the tent but later left. Cheers could be heard from the tent during the testimony of witnesses.

A few steps away from Torres’ supporters was a small tent of three police officers. Some police officers were also seen outside and inside the legislative building.

Bruce Lee Jorgensen, who is a co-plaintiff with Sen. Paul Manglona (Ind-Rota) in a lawsuit against the Senate in Superior Court that seeks to temporarily halt the impeachment trial, was seen seated in the Senate gallery but left after a few minutes. Saipan Tribune did not notice any House members in the gallery.

Present at the trial were four of Torres’ party-mates—Hofschneider, Karl R. King-Nabors, Francisco Q. Cruz, and Victor B. Hocog. Senate floor leader Vinnie F. Sablan (R-Saipan), who is the governor’s running mate in the November 2022 election, has recused himself from the proceedings, along with Sen. Justo S. Quitugua (R-Saipan). The minority senators present were Edith E. DeLeon Guerrero (D-Saipan), Paul A. Manglona (Ind-Rota), and Teresita A. Santos (Ind-Rota).

The CNMI Constitution requires two-thirds of the full Senate—or six senators—to vote “yes” to convict and remove Torres.

At the start of the proceedings, four senators voted “yes” to adopt the agenda and three—DeLeon Guerrero, Manglona, and Santos—voted “no.”

The public comments portion of the trial will be done after the hearing on the Articles of Impeachment.

Hofschneider reminded the senators to maintain order and proper decorum. He said if a member refuses to observe the decorum, he will establish and enforce decorum by all means granted to him by the Senate rules. Hofschneider allowed the senators to ask questions to witnesses by writing them on a piece of paper. Hofschneider would then read the questions to the witnesses.

Before calling the first witness, Aguon said the purpose of the hearing is for the House to present witnesses and evidence to prove the allegations against Torres. Aguon said to this point, he has identified a number of reasons that justify voting “no” on all six Articles of Impeachment.

First, he said, the House failed procedure because it did not comply with the House and the Senate rules when they impeached Torres.

The lawyer said the House also failed legally because the Articles of Impeachment do not comply with the CNMI Constitution and laws of the Commonwealth.

“Today, you will hear about how the House failed substantively because it cannot meet its burden to each of the Articles of Impeachment by clear and convincing evidence,” he said.

Aguon said he is confident that, by the end of this hearing, there will be no doubt in the senators’ mind that this has been a failed impeachment effort on all counts.

He said the House has chosen not to enter any appearance and, as a result, they are without an impeachment prosecutor. He said the House has also chosen not to file an impeachment record or any other evidence in support of their Articles of Impeachment. As a result, not a single piece of supporting evidence is before the Senate today, Aguon said.

He said now is the only time for the House to prove its Articles of Impeachment against the governor with clear and convincing evidence and not during public comments or in press releases.

“And since there’s nothing before you, Gov. Torres could technically just sit back and do nothing at all,” the lawyer said.

However, Aguon said, the Senate and the people of the Commonwealth deserve to hear the truth—that there is also a significant amount of evidence that directly contradicts what the House has alleged against Torres in its Articles of Impeachment.

Aguon said it will soon become apparent to the senators that what the House did was cherrypicked facts that supported their claims made in the Articles of Impeachment and conveniently ignored the true facts.

Aguon then called their first witness.

On the Impeachment Article 2, Cabrera testified that Torres issued a memo on June 6, 2017, to revise the travel regulations as they have been receiving a lot of complaints from government officials stating that the per diem is not enough when they travel off island.

Cabrera said Labor Secretary Vicky Benavente was the chair of the review committee and there were several members, including Claudio K. Norita.

He said they received feedbacks and analyzed the information to figure out the best approach to draft the new regulations. He said that’s when they inserted first class travel for the governor and lieutenant governor as they felt that it is in the best interest of the government that these two individuals are well-rested before they had to attend meetings in Washington, D.C. or abroad.

Cabrera said the consensus of the committee was that the governor and the lieutenant governor should receive first class status. He said Manibusan received a copy of the regulations via an email. He said Manibusan called him to his office and provided comments about what should be inserted in the regulations and recommended that the Office of the Attorney General or himself should have an official representation in the amount of $5,000 during off-island trips, just like the governor and lt. governor. Cabrera said they inserted Manibusan’s recommendation about the official representation.

He said Manibusan never mentioned that a provision allowing for premium travel violated the statute.

Cabrera said they concluded the draft travel regulations in 2018 and forwarded them to the Department of Finance. He said Finance took over the travel regulations as they are in charge of it.

In response to a question from a senator if the first class travel restriction remains today, Aguon said it’s not, as it was subsequently removed because the Office of the Public Auditor informed Finance around 2020 that there was an issue with that first class travel provision.

Birnbrich noted that the travel regulations were promulgated in September 2020 and adopted as final in October 2020.

Aguon said the issue is that at the time when Torres was travelling first class, there was still confusion about whether he and others could travel first class.

Aguon said the OAG is one that represents the Commonwealth and the government so it was the AG’s responsibility to make sure that those regulations follow the law. He said the AG himself was the one that created this confusion for numerous public officials to travel first class.

As to Impeachment Article 3, Pangelinan testified that Manibusan asked him in 2019 to investigate specifically Torres about the use of premium first class travel.

Pangelinan said he was opposed to subjecting Torres to an investigation because he wanted to investigate all of those using such travel and not just targeting the governor.

When shown a copy of a travel authorization and a boarding pass for business travel, Pangelinan said that Manibusan also traveled first class even after the law was passed restricting such travel, along with former AG San Nicolas and Lt. Gov. Palacios.

When Hofschneider stated that Pangelinan’s testimony is clear and that there is no need to proceed any further with this witness, Aguon said in fairness and justice, the Commonwealth deserves to hear the truth.

“And the truth is multiple public officials, including AG Manibusan, Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios traveled first class around the same time that Gov. Torres did and yet the only person that got charged criminally months before an election was Gov. Ralph DLG Torres,” Aguon pointed out.

Pangelinan said his recommendation in his investigation was to go back and recover the costs of first class travel from everyone, to include the governor. Pangelinan said he has no knowledge what action the AG or OAG took with his recommendation.

He said he did not recommend prosecuting Torres for violating that first class travel restriction and that it is still his opinion.

The former chief investigator said he can only speculate as to why Manibusan instructed him to investigate only Torres.

Aguon said Article 3 charges Torres for violating the law by traveling first class. However, Aguon pointed out, Manibusan himself ordered an investigation on Torres’s premium travels back in 2019 and limited that investigation to only one person—Torres.

Aguon said Pangelinan’s investigation uncovered numerous public officials who traveled first class and this includes Manibusan, San Nicolas, and Palacios. Had Manibusan truly been concerned about the premium class travel issue, he should have followed Pangelinan’s recommendation to just recover those costs, Aguon said.

The lawyer said Manibusan waited three years after the alleged travels and only months before the election to criminally charge only one official—Torres.

“And so members of the Senate, it is clear that the governor’s and the lieutenant governor’s ability to travel premium class on behalf of the government at that time was an idea that was not only supported by the attorney general who himself traveled first class,” Aguon said.

On Article 1, Camacho said he received a call from Torres in November 2019 informing him about his concern with the high water usage at his As Teo property, where he was residing at the time. Camacho said he instructed the CUC Water Division manager to look into the matter and see Camacho said they managed to fix the problem by isolating the water meter at Torres’ As Teo residence from anything else on the property. He said the consumed volume of water was subsequently identified, billed, and paid at the correct rate.

Camacho said there was no theft of utility services as there was no evidence of meter tampering in or around the governor’s property.

He said Torres legitimately received a utility benefit at Koblerville and then at As Teo residences and that there was no double billing.

Camacho said the document furnished by the JGO showing a double-billing was not an official CUC document.

Aguon said Commonwealth law does not prohibit the payment of the utilities of the governor and lieutenant governor’s official residences as a benefit in lieu of government housing. Aguon said Torres has only received the utility benefit for one official residence at a time. He said the House has failed to provide any supporting evidence for this Article 1.

On Article 2, Glenna Palacios testified that with respect to the Alaska and Oregon trip, Torres met with Western regional director of the Office of Defense local community cooperation as well as with representatives of a growing space industry, as well as with CNMI constituents abroad.

Palacios said the governor also met with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowsk,i who was the chair of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over the CNMI.

Aguon showed before senators photos of the meetings.

Palacios said she believes that such trips served a public benefit and that, in fact, the meeting with the Western regional director of the Office of Defense local community cooperation yielded approximately $3 million worth of benefit to the Commonwealth.

Aguon said Torres did not travel for personal recreation, personal benefit, or for pollical purposes, and that the trips served a public benefit.

On Article 5, Iakopo testified how Arrington’s Deer Meat for Dinner promotion exceeded all expectations on return on investment. Iakopo said the promotion is consistent with MVA’s strategy of maintaining a strong presence online or in the social media.

She noted that when Arrington and his crew came to the CNMI, inbound flights were suspended as a result of COVID-19 so MVA decided to invest in and maintain a strong online presence.

Aguon showed a photo in which the Legislature approved and presented Arrington with a legislative resolution for the work he did to promote the CNMI.

Aguon said to award Arrington for promoting the CNMI and then turning around and impeaching Torres for the same promotional videos is hypocrisy and betrayal of public trust at its worst.

He also noted that no laws were broken for the promotional videos.

Aguon said the governor’s participation and expenses related to Arrington’s YouTube videos were made for a public purpose: to promote all of the CNMI.

He said the videos have generated over $351 million in advertising exposure and that number continues to rise each day.

The lawyer said the House has failed to provide any supporting evidence to support Article 5.

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
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