Rep. Celina R. Babauta (D-Saipan) announced Friday the opening of her committee’s investigation into Gov. Ralph DLG Torres’ expenditures related to COVID-19 procurement, Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC matters, and travel and reimbursements, and if the committee’s findings warrant it, it could lead to impeachment raps being filed against the governor.
Babauta, who is the House Committee on Judiciary and Governmental Operations chair, said at the committee meeting Friday that the investigation is in consultation with House Speaker Rep. Edmund S. Villagomez (Ind-Saipan) and committee members.
“There is no doubt that holding an impeachment is contentious,” Babauta said.
This makes it the House’s second look into Torres’ expenditures. The same matter was also looked at in the 21st Legislature but Babauta said they didn’t complete that investigation into the governor’s expenditures.
When sought for comments yesterday, press secretary Kevin Bautista said the impetus of this investigation is not parliamentary procedure, but a political tactic that Babauta and the Democrats will “constantly use to fulfill a blatant political agenda, bringing up an old report that was not a formal committee correspondence.” That old report was the minority bloc’s report from the 21st Legislature, Bautista added.
He said in the last Legislature, the composition of the special committee was balanced, having representatives from both parties and its final conclusion showed no findings of consequence.
“This has been addressed and covered multiple times, yet it continues to be brought up by the same representatives who ran on a smear campaign and covered by the same reporters that cover choreographed public hearings and scripted speeches,” he said.
The press secretary said Friday’s House Committee hearing was convened by seven Democrats and two Republicans.
“It is plain to see where this is going to go: a one-sided legislative witch hunt on an issue that has been brought up multiple times,” Bautista said.
Babauta said the removal of any sitting officer in the executive or judicial branch is a very serious matter for any government. “But the Constitution is clear: Impeachment is a process meant to hold our leaders accountable for serious infractions against the laws of our land,” she pointed out.
In response to Saipan Tribune’s inquiry, Babauta said yesterday that if the committee’s findings warrant impeachment, their investigation is the beginning of the Democrats’ plan to impeach Torres for corruption.
Last Friday, Babauta said the committee’s investigation is the right step and that no one needs to be afraid. “The pendulum of justice is in full swing. There are no exceptions to the rule of law,” she said.
Babauta said the JGO committee has the constitutional and legislative duty to protect and defend against the diminution, the subversion, and the destruction of the CNMI Constitution, citing the search and seizures the FBI did on Torres and his spouse, Diann, his vehicle, his tax records, the personal residences of his family, and the law firm of his brothers in what is alleged to be his association with the exclusive casino licensee, IPI. Babauta said these investigations also allege illegal campaign contributions.
The JGO held the meeting Friday to address the then-House minority’s report that was provided by Villagomez last June 3 upon Babauta’s request.
Babauta said the minority report was produced in the 21st Legislature when they didn’t complete the investigation into the governor’s expenditures.
The then-House minority bloc’s report has a finding that the records they reviewed show that Torres took 102 trips that cost the CNMI government at least $490,000 in airfare, per diem and stipends, lodging, ground transportation, boat transportation, fuel, and incidentals from January 2015 to July 2020.
In their 24-page report, the minority bloc noted that because Torres nearly always traveled with companions, including his wife, personal security detail, other staff, and other officials at government expense, the total actual cost of executive travel during the period in review is significantly greater.
The report was signed by then-House minority leader Rep. Christina Sablan (D-Saipan) and then-Reps. Franklin Babauta (Ind-Saipan), Edmund Villagomez (Ind-Saipan), Richard Lizama (D-Saipan), Sheila Babauta (D-Saipan), and Donald Manglona (Ind-Rota).
The report recommends that legislative oversight should be conducted on the Department of Finance to review the status of adoption of uniform travel regulations for the government, and the implementation of Finance policy regarding official representation and reimbursements.
They said, among other recommendations, that Legislative oversight into Torres’ public expenditures should continue in the 22nd Legislature.
The previous House Special Committee on Fiscal Review of Executive Expenditures chaired by Rep. Ralph N. Yumul (R-Saipan), which was created to review the expenditures Torres, has found that they are unable to reach a decision.
At Friday’s meeting, the House Committee on JGO addressed some procedural matters related to their investigation.
Babauta said the committee members gave her the authority to issue what they call 1309 letters to several people to bring in documents so they can examine them and require their presence by this Friday.
Letter 1309 in the Commonwealth Code refers to acquisition of information by other lawful means.
She said with these letters, people are given five days to reply, but that at this time she cannot reveal the first three witnesses they will call.
Babauta said Torres will be called in later time once they take care of the other witnesses.