By Troy Torres
(Capitol Hill, Saipan) The Commonwealth House of Representatives debated an historic request by the Independent minority for Speaker BJ Attao to form a special investigative committee to look into public corruption by Gov. Ralph Torres.
"We, the members of the House Minority, formally request that you appoint a special committee to investigate allegations of public corruption, fraud, waste, and abuse of public funds by Governor Ralph Deleon Guerrero Torres," the letter from the six members of the minority block to Mr. Attao reads.
Minority Leader, Cong. Ed Propst, read the letter into the record:
We assert that the legislature has a solemn constitutional duty to investigate the allegations and records that have been circulated throughout our community, submitted to the members of the legislature, and covered by local and regional media. Enclosed with this letter is a sampling of these records, which includes a federal search warrant, a receipt for property seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), a grand jury subpoena, and government records related to travel, official representation, and reimbursements by Governor Torres.
The recent FBI raids on the home and office of the Governor and his associates, and the revelations of lavish and questionable expenses charged by the Governor to the people of the Commonwealth, have severely eroded public trust and the integrity of our government. We cannot and must not turn a blind eye.
We, the members of the House Minority, are fully committed to working with you and our colleagues in the House to ensure fairness, transparency, due diligence, and accountability in any special committee and inquiry going forward. We urge that the special committee enlist the Office of the Public Auditor and other experts and analysts as needed to examine records and witnesses. We further call for civility and decorum and an investigation that is based on facts and evidence.
Governor 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.
House Floor Leader John Paul "JP" Palacios Sablan challenged the request for the speaker to form a committee, saying that such an investigation should start with the Office of the Public Auditor. He asked his colleagues to respect the process of the FBI investigation into the governor.
"This is not about respecting the FBI process, this is about doing our fiduciary duty as a legislative body to look into these things," Mr. Propst said in reply.
Mr. Propst raised the issue of travel documents showing evidence that the governor broke the law several times by using public funds to fly first class and business class; this is against CNMI law. "With all due respect, I want to ask all of my colleagues ... do any of you fly first class on public funds?" No one answered.
The House legal counsel was asked by Mr. Propst for his interpretation of the travel law, to which the legal counsel replied that public funds cannot be used to purchase first class, business class, or other premium class airfare.
“If we are going to say that we are just going to wait for the FBI to do their job and we are going to do nothing about it then we are not really understanding why we are in this seat," Mr. Propst said. "We are not here to wait for the FBI. There’s nothing in our Constitution that says wait for the FBI. This isn’t even about the FBI. This is not a federal charge. This is a local matter. And when the AG is not going to do anything or anyone else, it’s up to us. It’s why we sit here. It’s why we work for the people. Our loyalty is not to the Governor. It’s not to a party. It’s not to each other. It’s to the people who put us in this seat.”
Congresswoman Tina Sablan also made an impassioned plea to her colleagues for the House to do what the people of the Commonwealth want them to do: look into the public records presented to the House and have the governor answer for his actions.
“We are not calling for an impeachment," Mr. Propst said. "We are calling for a special committee to look at these documents and to talk about them and to discuss them fairly and openly. That’s what we are asking for.”
Preceding the impeachment of former Gov. Benigno Fitial, the CNMI House of Representatives formed a special investigative committee. The results of that investigation found probable cause to impeach the governor.
“We are facing one of the toughest times in our history," Mr. Propst said. "We have our constituents living in tents who we visit. Living in misery.”
Mr. Attao said he will be referring the matter to one or more committees, and will make his decision known either in a written correspondence, or by ruling at the House's Friday session.