A years-long investigation into the spending of public funds by the governor of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands may be drawing to a close this month.

The territorial government’s Judicial and Governmental Operations Committee has been investigating Republican Gov. Ralph Torres since 2019 and has already questioned several key witnesses who furnished details surrounding thousands of pages of receipts and records dating back to 2016. Five more people will be subpoenaed, according to the committee chair, with the governor expected to appear last.

Torres has led the U.S. Pacific territory since late 2015. But much of his time in office has been mired in controversy due to his involvement with the Hong Kong-based Imperial Pacific Casino, exorbitant travel costs, spending of public funds, and being raided and investigated by the FBI. The JGO Committee has subpoenaed close contacts of Torres since the beginning of this year, seeking testimony from his personal security detail, his chief of staff and wife, among others.

CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres is under investigation for misusing public funds. Courtesy: CNMI Office of Governor

The proceeding came to a head two weeks ago, when Torres’ executive secretary Frances Dela Cruz was found in criminal contempt for refusing to answer questions. And his former running mate, Lt. Gov. Arnold Palacios, split with him after he was subpoenaed. Palacios is now running against him in next year’s gubernatorial elections due to a “crisis of confidence.”

The current probes into the governor have been underway since late 2019, when the FBI executed a search and seizure warrant on the governor’s home, office and car as well as the offices of the casino. His brothers were also under investigation. Shortly after, the House minority Democrats requested documents pertaining to Torres’ spending of public funds and launched their own investigation.

The subsequent minority report, published in January 2020, showed the governor and associates had taken more than 102 trips, costing $490,000 in airfare, taxis, boat trips, accommodations, per diems and stipends.

Secretarial Contempt

Dela Cruz read a pre-written statement 10 times in response to members’ questions during a Nov. 15 hearing, citing testimonial immunity and executive privilege, saying the scope of questioning exceeded the committee’s authority. She added that the subpoena was delivered on too short of notice. A subpoena had been delivered earlier, but questions over its validity led to it being canceled. Another was served just hours before the hearing.

The committee had only asked her role and name to be stated for the record. Following vocal exasperation from the committee’s members as they tried to ask more questions, Dela Cruz — who appeared with her own lawyer and the governor’s counsel — was dismissed.

Dela Cruz previously provided a sworn affidavit.

Democratic Rep. Edwin Propst said he felt sorry for Dela Cruz, a “pawn” to Torres.

Frances Dela Cruz, center, appeared alongside her counsel Viola Alepuyo and the governor’s legal counsel Gil Birnbrich. YouTube/2021

Who hires $200,000 worth of lawyers if they have nothing to hide? Only somebody who has plenty to hide,” Propst said during the hearing. “I find it deplorable, shocking, that he would be willing to put Ms. Dela Cruz in harm’s way to face contempt charges.”

“The committee felt we had provided her with ample opportunity to answer our questions,” JGO Committee Chairwoman Celina Babauta said in an interview with Civil Beat. “It was then, and only then, did we collectively decide to find her in contempt of a legislative subpoena.”

‘Office Supplies’

Dela Cruz was subpoenaed along with the first lady’s former and current personal security guards, former Guam Sen. William Castro and Sgt. Joey Cruz, the governor’s head of security.

Several witnesses have been unable to recall details surrounding the receipts and records in question, pertaining to reimbursements for first and business class flights for the governor, his wife and their security guards to the mainland and Guam, and dinners of foie gras, filet steak and king crab above existing stipends.

Judicial and Governmental Operations Committee Chairwoman Celina Babauta says Gov. Ralph Torres will be the last to be subpoenaed. Facebook

“As far as witnesses who are not as cooperative as (we) hoped they would be, each one did bring something that was beneficial to the committee,” Babauta said. “Despite all the memory lapses we were still able to confirm what we needed.”

The governor’s receipts also show him seeking reimbursement for items such as automotive paraphernalia, hardware, a wheelbarrow, cameras, liquor, several pairs of bluetooth headphones and a rifle case, some under the “office supplies” category.

Throughout the investigation, the JGO Committee has questioned the spending of Torres and his wife on his official trips and additional personal days in 2017, including a more than $7,000 trip to Washington, D.C for President Donald Trump’s inauguration gala, to Guam for the Micronesian Leaders Summit, and to Oregon and Montana for meetings with the Western Governors Association and Fish and Wildlife officials.

Security were questioned about their roles, whether they escorted the governor and his wife to unofficial functions and helped with personal matters while on the clock.

First Lady Diann Torres traveled with Torres on at least 31 government-funded trips between December 2016 and December 2019, according to the Democrats’ 2020 report, at a cost of $82,000.

The first lady is not an official government role.

‘Ill-Informed, Ill-Managed And Irresponsible Political Showmanship’

Torres has panned the committee and its process, calling the predominantly Democratic probe “ill-informed, ill-managed and irresponsible political showmanship,” in a November letter to the committee.

He cited the “irrational hatred” the committee members had for him, proposing a more expedient timeline for the hearings.

Torres said the committee may disagree with his actions, but maintained none of it was illegal, according to the Saipan Tribune.

The committee has continually questioned whether the witnesses’ testimony had been influenced by Torres, something he has denied.

On Nov. 18, Propst asked police Sgt. Flora Aguon, former security officer for the first lady, whether anyone had influenced her testimony, which she denied.

The governor’s office and legal counsel did not respond to requests for comment.

Accelerating the timeline was infeasible given the lack of space, committee members’ conflicting commitments and, given the time of year, the interrupted calendar of the holiday season, according to Babauta.

“Many of these documents date back years,” Babauta said in an interview with Civil Beat. “We are covering a time period of over four years … so we’ve had to go over each document with a microscope, basically.”

The committee has parsed thousands of documents dating back to 2017, in relation to the governor’s spending, Babauta said.

“This doesn’t just take a month or two,” she said.

Torres’ letter asked for questions to be delivered in writing by Nov. 15. “I have no reason not to provide the truth,” he wrote.

The committee did not respond to the governor’s letter.

“We are in no way obliged to do so. We take the position that we are a separate branch of the government … the executive branch can’t enforce regulations upon the legislature,” Babauta said.

The committee will continue as scheduled with its witnesses next week.

“And the last will be Gov. Torres himself,” she said.

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