Pohnpei Legislature unanimously adopts articles of impeachment against Chief Justice Rodriguez
- Category: News
- Published: Monday, 28 August 2017 09:11
- Written by Bill Jaynes
- Hits: 1915
The Kaselehlie Press
August 4, 2017
Pohnpei—The Pohnpei Legislature has taken the unprecedented act of presenting Articles of Impeachment against a Chief Justice of the Pohnpei Supreme Court. After several months of hearings, some open to the public and some closed, on August 4, the general assembly of the Legislature unanimously voted to pass the resolution of impeachment (LR 36-17).
According to Article 13 Section 6 of the Pohnpei Constitution, upon the adoption of a resolution of impeachment, a notice of impeachment should be served upon the official by the Legislature. “Upon service of the notice of impeachment, the official shall be suspended from his duties, but with pay, pending judgment.”
The Constitution calls next for a tribunal of three Justices of the Pohnpei Supreme Court to be convened by the Governor. The tribunal will appoint a special prosecutor with the approval of a majority of the members of the Legislature without regard to vacancies. A conviction of impeachment would require the vote of two-thirds of the members of the tribunal.
According to Chief of Staff Joseph Saimon, the Governor has not yet selected the members of the tribunal. Since Chief Justice Benjamin Rodriguez has resigned effective August 14, the impeachment proceedings may not need to move forward any further than they already have. (See separate press release in this issue).
“Your committee decided that it has received sufficient information and evidence through its investigative hearings to substantiate the allegations presented in L.R. No. 36-17 [the first draft of the impeachment resolution],” the Judiciary and Governmental Operations (J&GO) Standing Committee report on the resolution said.
“The reason that the framers of our Constitution looked to the Legislature to commence the process of the possible impeachment of a high level officer of the government is neither for personal punishment nor for the recovery of government assets or properties…The purpose of the assigned proposal for a resolution is to look deeply into the activities of the Chief Justice to determine whether the wrongful actions that are alleged in the proposal for a resolution have a factual basis and have been so destructive of the fundamentals of democratic government as to justify his removal from office.”
The first draft of the impeachment resolution contained 28 articles. The final version that was unanimously passed by the Legislature after two drafts contained 19 articles.
In the final version, the first four articles had to do with government payments for a medical referral to the Philippines on behalf of Chief Justice. He allegedly authorized a government per diem of $2,142 for himself even though the trip was also funded by MiCare. He also allegedly authorized $1,618.58 of government funds for his wife to accompany him on a trip that was personal in nature. The use of government funds for personal trips is against the law.
Articles five through eight have to do with the alleged issuance of government funds to pay for Rodriguez’s own personal medical bill at Genesis Hospital.
Articles nine and 10 have to do with stipends approved by and drawn by Chief Justice Rodriguez for a trip allegedly paid for by the Pacific Island Education Program. The travel authorization’s stated purpose of the trip was attendance at the NJC (acronym undefined in the resolution) in San Antonio, Texas. However, Rodriguez allegedly also took a side trip to Kansas City with “no satisfactory explanation or justification for the side trip and lengthy stay in Kansas City. Moreover, the days spent in Kansas City were marked ‘personal’ by the Pacific Island Education Program.” The Pohnpei State Government also paid for seven days of travel benefits in Honolulu “though the Chief Justice only spent one day in transit from Honolulu to Texas and four days in Hawaii just prior to his return to Pohnpei,” the resolution alleges. “State documents do not show any official government purpose for his extended stay in Honolulu on his return to Pohnpei.”
Articles 11 through 15 have to do with an account at the Bank of Guam allegedly opened by Chief Justice Rodriguez outside of the purview of the Pohnpei Department of Treasury and Administration. The resolution alleges that there was a failure to report on the activities and accounting of the outside bank account in a manner consistent with the Financial Management Act of 1987. It claims that Rodriguez did not report the existence and financial activities of the account to the Legislature. Financial activities included direct deposits into that account rather than to the Pohnpei Treasury for judicial trainings and conferences sponsored by non-Pohnpei Government entities. The resolution detailed 10 instances in which those types of deposits were made after which a check was made payable directly to Chief Justice Rodriguez in the same amount.
“The bank records reveal that this practice was carried out for other members of the Pohnpei Judiciary as well,” the resolution said. The cumulative total of checks made payable to individual members of the judiciary from 2012 to 2016 was $31,910.57. “Such checks were drawn upon the Bank of Guam checking account and paid as per diem reimbursements to individual members of the Pohnpei Judiciary who were in some cases also being paid travel advance stipends…” from the Pohnpei Treasury. The Bank of Guam account payments for travel were not registered with the Treasury, the resolution alleges.
Articles 16 through 19 allege that Chief Justice Rodriguez’s failure to properly administer and manage the financial activities of the Pohnpei Supreme Court resulted in missing revenue collections in the amount of $123,857.25 and 1400 missing cash receipts. It further alleges that Rodriguez failed to accurately report the revenues received by the Supreme Court and deposited in the Pohnpei Treasury for fiscal years 2009 through 2014. That failure allegedly led to the absence of discovery of the missing collection revenue.
The J&GO report on the impeachment resolution is 18 pages long. It details the chronology and process by which the members came to their conclusions.
On February 7, 2017, the Pohnpei State Legislature received a letter from the Office of the Attorney General. That letter contained several allegations against the Chief Justice of possible violations of Pohnpei laws. On February 14 the J&GO Committee held its first meeting on the Communication. It was then that they decided to hold public hearings with the Office of the Public Auditor and also with the Attorney General which took place on February 16. After those hearings the Committee became convinced that because of the sensitivity of the matter, the AG’s communication must be sealed and remain confidential until the Committee had made its decision on the matter.
On February 22 the Attorney General informed the Committee that he would be filing criminal and civil charges against Chief Justice Rodriguez and proceeded to do so over the course of the next several weeks. “Thus, with considerable thought, your Committee met on February 24, 2017, and decided that it will fulfill its mandate by introducing a proposal for a resolution citing only data and information provided in the Communication (the AG’s February 7 communication). It was the sense of your Committee, that the Communication and its attached exhibits provide(d) enough information and evidence to substantiate a draft proposal for a resolution that will then be deliberated upon and built onto further in accordance with the legislative process,” the committee reports said.
Knowing that any proposed resolution would undergo a variety of changes, on April 10, 2017, the initial proposal for a resolution to present Articles of Impeachment against the Chief Justice of Pohnpei was presented in the absence of any further fact finding. On May 18 the Committee held an executive meeting and by majority vote agreed to begin investigative hearings which began with a public hearing with the Office of the Public Auditor and support staff.
Following the committee’s first investigative hearing on the resolution on May 26, the Legislature was summoned to the FSM Supreme Court as a defendant to answer a complaint filed by Benjamin Rodriguez. Rodriguez had asked the FSM Supreme Court to stop the Pohnpei Legislature from continuing its investigative hearings on the proposed impeachment resolution. The court ruled against Rodriguez’s motion. first closed door investigative hearing happened on May 30 with the Attorney General. All subsequent hearings were also held behind closed doors based on a decision of the committee made on May 25 due to their sensitive nature. The committee also heard testimony from an Assistant Attorney General who is a former Chief Justice of the Pohnpei Supreme Court regarding the origins of a separate and unauthorized Bank of Guam Account.
On June 14 the committee heard testimony from the current Department of Treasury and Administration regarding procedures relating to travel authorizations. It also had a closed door hearing with the former Director of the Department of Treasury and Administration.
All of the hearings and data led the committee to believe that it had sufficient information and evidence to substantiate its allegations.
Though Rodriguez’s resignation effectively puts an end to the impeachment process, he is still facing several other ongoing civil and criminal charges in the court system.