CNMI Governor Resigns, Senate Trial Cancelled
By Haidee V. Eugenio
SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Feb. 21, 2013) – In less than five hours yesterday, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands saw the resignation of Benigno R. Fitial as governor and the swearing in of both former lieutenant governor Eloy S. Inos as the Commonwealth's eighth governor and former Senate president Jude U. Hofschneider as his lieutenant governor. Like the impeachment, yesterday's turn of events was unprecedented in Commonwealth history.
"These are very difficult and trying times and it is time to move on," Inos, 63, said in his five-minute inaugural speech at a packed Pedro P. Tenorio Multi-Purpose Center in Susupe yesterday afternoon.
The change in leadership comes 15 days before Fitial was supposed to face trial at the Senate, at a time when tourism is on the uptick although the overall economy has yet to finally rise from its lowest ebb, coupled with troubled healthcare and pension systems.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Alexandro Castro administered the oath of office to Inos, while Superior Court Presiding Judge Robert Naraja swore in Hofschneider in a solemn ceremony that took only a little over three hours to organize.
The inauguration, which lasted only 28 minutes, made Inos the first CNMI governor to come from Rota and Hofschneider the first lieutenant governor from Tinian. The House speaker and the new Senate president are from Saipan. Inos and Hofschneider are also both unmarried at this time.
Inos, a former Finance secretary, said there will be "no overnight fixes" but that his administration is committed to work with the CNMI's leaders and the people "to find sensible solutions" to critical issues such as the economy, healthcare, utilities, and the NMI Retirement Fund.
Hofschneider, 42, said in his two-minute inaugural speech, that he stands ready to assist Inos in addressing the challenges ahead.
"Now more than ever is the time for our three branches of government, our business community, and the people of our islands, to work together as we pave the way to a more successful and prosperous future," he said.
Before taking his oath as lieutenant governor, Hofschneider held an emergency Senate session to, among other things, accept Fitial's last communication and bid his farewell to his colleagues he has worked for years. But he said the working partnership will continue.
Fitial personally handed his resignation letter to Inos at 9:40am yesterday, a day after he was served a writ of summons to appear before the Senate and answer the 18 articles of impeachment against him.
The 18th House of Representatives impeached Fitial on 18 charges of corruption, commission of felony, and neglect of duty. His impeachment trial at the Senate was supposed to start on March 7.
"Let me be clear. I am prepared to present an aggressive defense to the allegations forwarded to the Senate from the House of Representatives. None of the allegations in the House report is an impeachable offense," Fitial said in a statement.
Fitial is the first governor in the CNMI and any U.S. insular area to be impeached.
His resignation-the first for any sitting governor in CNMI history-took effect at 10am yesterday.
Minutes after Fitial went to Inos' office, press secretary Angel Demapan hand-carried Fitial's resignation letters to the offices of House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (IR-Saipan), main author of the impeachment resolution, and Hofschneider.
Inos said in his remarks, based on a bullet-point draft, that Fitial didn't ask him to go to the former governor's office.
"He came to my office. In a very humble manner, he presented me a letter. And I asked him, what was that for? What's the letter about? I looked at it and the first time I saw it.I almost fell off my chair," said Inos.
Inos and Fitial have decades of friendship. That relationship had been strained in recent years over personal and political issues. Inos is currently the titular head of the Covenant Party, which Fitial formed for his first gubernatorial bid. Fitial rejoined the Republican Party and is again its president.
"I did not expect the governor to do what he did but the letter simply says the time has come for him to step down and it is in the best interest of the Commonwealth community that he did that because he wants to bring people together and so we can move forward," Inos said.
When asked whether Fitial will have a role in his administration, Inos said "no."
Both Inos and Hofschneider thanked Fitial for his years of service to the CNMI. They wished him the best and for his health to improve. They also thanked their families, friends, colleagues, and the CNMI people.
Fitial said his resignation was not only about legal considerations but also personal ones.
"I am 67 years old and not in good health. I need medical attention that has time and again been sacrificed to emergencies here in the Commonwealth. I want to be here for my children and my grandchildren. And I especially want to be here for my wife Josie, who has made great sacrifices to sustain me while I held office. I need to go to the mainland for my health," he said.
'Real work begins'
Speaker Deleon Guerrero said "the real work now begins," referring to tackling pension, healthcare, utilities and economic issues.
"Let's move forward. I hope we can begin the process of healing now. It's a tumultuous period. I hope we can put it behind us now and move on. We seek the public's help and patience as we begin to make hard decisions," Deleon Guerrero told Saipan Tribune.
In the 17th Legislature, Fitial's allies in the House leadership blocked Deleon Guerrero and other members' impeachment resolution. However, voters wiped out almost all of Fitial's candidates in the Nov. 6 mid-term elections, paving the way for most pro-impeachment candidates to win and introduce another impeachment resolution in January.
House Vice Speaker Frank Dela Cruz (IR-Saipan) referred this reporter to his Jan. 14 inaugural speech that created a buzz in the House gallery at the time when he said he's committed to working with all the stakeholders such as the Senate, the Judiciary, "and more importantly, the new administration."
"It's something I felt would happen, and it happened. We have a new administration," he said.
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) thanked Fitial "for deciding to save all of us the trouble from what would have been a lengthy trial at the Senate."
"I know this was not an easy decision for him to make but he decided that stepping down was the right thing to do. And for that, I am grateful. I wish Gov. Inos and Lt. Gov. Hofschneider the best as they take on their new positions. And I give them my personal assurance that I will help where I can," he said.
Former Senate president Paul Manglona said, "It's a new day for the CNMI."
"People are very hopeful and excited now that the governor stepped down. I just wish he could have done it a long time ago. .This is also a lesson for present and future leaders that when you hold public office, you have to be accountable. This is the beginning of a new era in the CNMI," he said at the inauguration.
Rep. Tony Sablan (IR-Saipan), chairman of the special committee that reviewed the impeachment resolution in the 18th Legislature, said that yesterday was "something historic" but there's a lot of work to do to be where the CNMI needs to be.
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