Torres' lawyers meet with CNMI House panel

MEETING: Attorneys Viola Alepuyo, left, and Gil Birnbrich listen to Ross Garber speak via videocall during a CNMI House Judiciary and Governmental Operations meeting Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, in the House chamber. Emmanuel T. Erediano/For The Guam Daily Post

SAIPAN – The Democratic-led Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands House Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee on Wednesday convened to accommodate the request of Ross Garber, lawyer for CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres. Garber wanted to discuss issues pertaining to testimonial immunity that he has invoked for the Republican governor's executive assistant, Frances Dela Cruz.

Dela Cruz was subpoenaed by the committee to testify at 10:30 a.m. Thursday regarding the governor's travels and expenditures, but her legal counsel, Viola Alepuyo, told the committee that Dela Cruz would not be able to appear "in light of the constitutional testimonial privilege and immunity recently raised by the attorneys for the Office of the Governor."

Alepuyo told committee chair Rep. Celina Babauta that her client's constitutional rights "are of the utmost importance and I need time to advise her appropriately."

Alepuyo also requested an opportunity to meet with the committee, along with the governor's legal counsel, Gil Birnbrich, and with Garber, the governor's lawyer from Washington, D.C.

The committee convened at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday in the CNMI House chamber with Alepuyo, Birnbrich and, through videocall, Garber.

In her remarks, Babauta noted that "time and time again, the governor repeatedly said that he has nothing to hide."

But the governor is now "demonstrating actions that the committee views as resistance and roadblocks to the legitimate investigative functions of the Legislature."

"I feel this is a serious betrayal of the Constitution and the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches," she added.

Babauta also told Alepuyo, "We were very disappointed (by your) response and by your indication that Ms. Dela Cruz will not be testifying."

Babauta reiterated that witnesses are not the "targets" of the investigation, and are needed only to shed light on certain facts.

She said this is the reason her committee granted Alepuyo's request to discuss the issues raised by Garber pertaining to testimonial immunity.

Babauta set another committee meeting for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 19, adding: "We hope that no further barriers or obstacles are placed in our way so that we can receive the testimony of Frances Dela Cruz."

Like Babauta, Rep. Edwin Propst said the governor had declared "numerous times that he has nothing to hide, and even asked the committee to move with the investigation expeditiously. ... The governor says he has nothing to hide (but now says) Dela Cruz should not testify."