JGO allows Torres’ executive assistant to submit sworn affidavit instead

Torres will be the last to be called to testify next month
House of Representatives Judiciary and Governmental Opera-tions Committee chair Rep. Celina R. Babauta

House of Representatives Judiciary and Governmental Opera-tions Committee chair Rep. Celina R. Babauta (D-Saipan) an-nounces their decision yesterday to allow Frances Dela Cruz, the executive assistant to the governor, to instead submit her tes-timony through a sworn affidavit. Babauta said they are, how-ever, not waiving any rights or powers that they have to compel the appearance and testimony of Dela Cruz or any witness. (FERDIE DE LA TORRE)

Frances Dela Cruz, the governor’s executive assistant, did not appear before the House of Representatives Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee yesterday as scheduled after the committee allowed her to submit her testimony via a sworn affidavit instead.

Committee chair Rep. Celina R. Babauta (D-Saipan) was quick to add, though, that this does not mean the committee is giving up its legislative right to compel Dela Cruz’s physical presence to provide live testimony before the committee.

Babauta said they are making this decision after reviewing the proposal of Ross Garber, the Washington, D.C.-based lawyer for Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and the Governor’s Office in the JGO matter, and that it is the decision of the committee to permit Dela Cruz to submit an affidavit as to her duties related to the subpoena that was served upon her.

“That is the decision collective decision of this committee,” she said.

The committee is investigating Torres’ expenditures of public funds and travels.

Babauta announced the committee’s decision after its members and House counsel Joseph Taijeron met with Garber in a conference call shortly before yesterday’s JGO hearing.

Garber and Viola Alepuyo, counsel for Dela Cruz, earlier earlier objected to the subpoena for Dela Cruz to testify, asserting that she has testimonial immunity. Instead, Garber had proposed that the committee members submit their questions ahead of time to Dela Cruz, and that the latter will reply to those questions within seven days.

Babauta said she has called for a JGO meeting this coming Tuesday, Oct. 26, at 10am, in which they are expecting Dela Cruz to submit her affidavit no later than 10am on that day.

Babauta said this accommodation is in no way to be interpreted as conceding to whatever immunity or privileges Dela Cruz may or may not have.

“With respect to Garber’s objection and Alepuyo’s objections, we are not unreasonable. We are not uncompromising. This is democracy in action,” Babauta said.

Garber, Alepuyo, and Dela Cruz were not present in the House chamber yesterday.

The committee served Dela Cruz a subpoena last Oct. 8. Garber and Alepuyo have been communicating back and forth with the committee over the past several days regarding the subpoena.

Babauta said yesterday was Oct. 19, or the 11th day since the subpoena was served.

Babauta said Garber and Alepuyo have objected to the subpoena and have made claims of absolute testimonial immunity for Dela Cruz because she is an executive assistant to the governor. Babauta it is the same position that she herself held for 16 years when she was still working at the Office of the Governor under then-governor Juan N. Babauta. She said the position does not entail much more than is administrative in nature.

“There are certainly no threats to national security or trade secrets that may be exposed to a person who engages in that position. Trust me,” Babauta said.

Rep. Christina E. Sablan (D-Saipan) reiterated that they are absolutely clear that they are allowing Dela Cruz to submit a signed and sworn written affidavit under penalty of perjury.

Sablan said Dela Cruz’s affidavit would attest to her duties, responsibilities, knowledge and experience as to the subject matters that are listed in the subpoena that she received, including travel for the governor and first lady, reimbursement requests by the governor, utilities of the governor’s, among others.

“I think that we should be very, very clear that we are not conceding that the immunities and privileges that the governor is invoking actually apply to this assistant or any future witnesses that we subpoena to testify before this body,” she said.

Sablan said they are not submitting their questions ahead of time.

The lawmaker said they are not waiving any rights or powers that they have to compel the appearance and testimony of Dela Cruz or any other witness. Sablan said in fact, they fully expect that they will still have questions that will require Dela Cruz’s appearance before the committee.

“We expect Cruz and all future witnesses to comply with our subpoenas appear in this chamber and testify truthfully to the best of their knowledge cooperating fully with this legislative investigation. I think that should be absolutely clear for the record,” she added.

Babauta echoed Sablan, saying they are definitely not giving up their rights or any privileges or options they may have under the law as they are simply allowing and permitting Dela Cruz to submit an affidavit.

The committee also granted Sablan’s motion to issue a subpoena for William “Wil” Castro, the newly hired chief of staff of Torres. Sablan did not explain her motion. She referred reporters to Babauta, who said in a later interview that this is simply because Castro’s name appears on the governor’s documents that they have in their possession. Babauta said the documents include memoranda where Torres sought reimbursement for many of his travels between 2015 and 2019.

She said Castro will be subpoenaed in his position as a then-sitting Guam senator and not as a chief of staff of Torres.

The committee also granted Sablan’s recommendation to go ahead and issue the remaining subpoenas and begin scheduling out the appearances for those witnesses to come into the chamber to testify.

Babauta said the previous subpoenas that have been approved by the committee are for Torres, first lady Diann Torres, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Robert Guerrero, Finance Secretary David DLG Atalig, former Finance secretary Larrisa Larson, and police officers Joey Cruz, Jhaneeka Atalig, and Flora Aguon.

Babauta disclosed in an interview that they plan to execute the subpoena for governor next month or after everybody had been called in. Babauta said Torres will be the last witness they are going to call to testify.

“As with even with court files, you don’t bring in a perpetrator or alleged perpetrator until you have laid out all your evidence and that will make our case,” she said.

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

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