Northern Mariana Islands Governor Ralph Torres (R) and Secretary of Finance David Atalig jointly decided to reassign customs director Jose Mafnas to a position in the department of commerce. Torres cited the discretion he and Atalig had in reassigning employees, saying that “Cabinet members are empowered to make decisions that are in the best interests of the Commonwealth .” Atalig also said the reassignment would build cross-department relations between the Departments of Finance and Commerce.
Yet the reassignment has been denounced for being politically motivated. Mafnas is an outspoken critic of the governor and has endorsed Arnold Palacios (I), Torres’ opponent in the upcoming elections. In the past, he had also defied the governor’s instructions to buy government equipment through the governor’s brother. Mafnas claims that this opposition to Torres is what caused his reassignment, which he views as a demotion. Representative Tina Sablan (D), who is also running against Torres in November, sided with Mafnas, accusing Torres of political retaliation and running a “vindictive and childish administration.”
Mafnas has brought complaints to both the Northern Mariana Islands Superior Court and the US District Court. In his lawsuit, he alleges that the position he was reassigned to does not actually exist, and there are no roles or responsibilities associated with it. He also claims that the new position will shorten his future employment. In an interview, he added that the reassignment was too sudden and violated his rights. In addition to suing the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Torres, and Atalig, Mafnas has also filed for a restraining order against Atalig in the interim. This will not be Torres’ first time in court. In the last few months, he has been embroiled in a series of political scandals. He is currently engaged in a separate legal battle defending against allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement. The outcomes of these lawsuits and their proximity to the gubernatorial elections in November will likely have a significant impact on Torres’ future as governor.