“We, the members of the House minority [bloc], formally request that you appoint a special committee to investigate allegations of public corruption, fraud, waste, and abuse of public funds by Gov. Ralph Deleon Guerrero Torres.”
That bombshell request was the opening salvo of a letter of request the House of Representatives minority bloc hand-delivered to House Speaker Blas Jonathan Attao (R-Saipan) yesterday, as read into the record by Rep. Edwin K. Propst (Ind-Saipan) during a House of Representatives session on Capital Hill.
The request comes in response to documents that purport to show Torres’ reimbursement requests and representation expenses. The documents were reportedly obtained via an Open Government Act request.
In reading the letter, Propst said the Legislature has a duty to investigate the allegations. Enclosed with the minority’s letter were documents that included copies of a federal search warrant, a receipt for property seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a grand jury subpoena, and government records related to travel, official representation, and reimbursement requests of the governor.
The letter, signed by Propst, Rep. Cristina Sablan (Ind-Saipan), Rep. Edmund Villagomez (Ind-Saipan), Rep. Sheila Babauta (Ind-Saipan), Rep. Richard Lizama (Ind-Saipan), and Rep. Donald Manglona (Ind-Saipan) cites the recent searches the Federal Bureau of Investigation executed on Torres’ office and home and that of his associates. It added that the Legislature must not ignore “revelations of lavish and questionable expenses” that Torres had charged the CNMI government.
It said these revelations and incidents “have severely eroded public trust and the integrity of our government. We cannot and must not turn a blind eye.”
House rules allow the speaker to create special committees to investigate matters that are referred to them.
The minority lawmakers said the special committee should work with the Office of the Public Auditor and other experts and analysts to examine records and witnesses.
“We further call for civility and decorum and an investigation that is based on facts and evidence,” the letter stated. “Gov. Torres, like all citizens of our country and Commonwealth, deserves due process, the benefit of the doubt, and an opportunity to answer for himself to this legislative body and the people we represent.”
The minority bloc’s call was challenged by House floor leader John Paul Sablan (R-Saipan), saying that the Legislature cannot operate based on accusations.
“We should allow the expert entities to conduct this investigation of the expenditures of our government. To just create a special committee based on accusations and assumptions, I do not think it is rightfully right. Let us respect the process,” Rep. John Paul Sablan said.
In response, Villagomez said that trust in government is important. “We need to represent the people the best we can. We should never forget that they are our boss.”
Villagomez also reminded that the House of Representatives is a separate branch of government that could make its own investigations.
Checks and balances
Rep. Cristina Sablan said the CNMI is facing matters of grave and constitutional urgency, hence the need for a special committee to investigate Torres.
“When there are breaches of the Constitution or the laws of the Commonwealth committed by public officials in one branch of government, our democracy depends on the other branches to provide accountability and restore balance,” she said.
There may be a legal process that is already underway, but Rep. Cristina Sablan pointed out that the House of Representatives has its own process for doing legislative investigations.
“Let us do our jobs,” she said, appealing to her colleagues. “Which side of history will we choose to be on? Let’s choose the side of the people we were elected to serve.”
Attao believes that much of the information that are being shared mostly concerns the Office of the Public Auditor. “A lot of that is an OPA issue and OPA is the entity of the government that should be looking into the finances and how it’s being utilized. If it is bad, then the OPA would come up with a report, and OPA would submit the report over here,” he said.
As for the letter from the minority, Attao said that he will be sending the request to existing committees for further review.