CNMI Attorney General To Face Charges, Withdraws Resignation
By Emmanuel T. Erediano with Andrew O. De Guzman
SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Aug. 6, 2012) – Outgoing Attorney General Edward T. Buckingham on Sunday said he is no longer resigning and will face the charges filed against him by the Office of the Public Auditor.
"I continue to serve as the attorney general for the commonwealth," he said in an email. "The unexpected filing by [OPA] has placed a cloud on me and on the office. Accordingly, I have notified the governor that I have withdrawn my previously issued notice of intent to resign. The governor concurs with this status."
Asked to comment about the charges, Buckingham said: "I have had the privilege of serving the commonwealth in the Office of the Attorney General for nine years: 3 years in Civil, 3 in Criminal, and 3 as AG. To think that at the last hour of my last day of nine years of service I would learn that OPA had chosen to submit certain misdemeanor charges was disheartening. That said, I have confidence and appreciation that most people in the commonwealth know that our office and me personally have done our best to serve the people. I have never claimed to be perfect. I have claimed that I have done my best. I also stand on previous statements that I have never used the Office of the Attorney General to endorse or oppose the candidacy of any candidate."
He said family plans were made some time ago that included travel over the weekend. "Such travel precludes attendance at a court proceeding on Monday, Aug. 6. I will, however, be represented so this matter may proceed. I anticipate a request will be made to continue Monday’s proceeding."
On Saturday morning, Department of Public Safety officers, including their Deputy Commissioner Ambrosio Ogumoro (not his brother Aniceto as earlier reported online), made sure Buckingham was already at the airport before the Office of Public Auditor could serve the penal summons to the AG.
KSPN reporter Tina Sablan and her husband Glen Hunter were outside the airport’s departure area at past 3 a.m., Saturday, to get footage of OPA investigators serving Buckingham the penal summons.
In an interview Saturday evening with the Variety, Sablan said when they arrived at the airport, they saw several police cars. "I wasn’t sure who or what these officers were there for. And when I asked, they said ‘no comment.’ "
Afterward, Buckingham and his wife emerged from an unmarked SUV parked along the curb. They walked quickly toward the departure area escorted by Ogumoro and other police officers, including Gov. Benigno R. Fitial’s security aide, Jermaine Nekaifes. Buckingham earlier told the media that he would be joining his wife in the states.
Sablan, who was holding a video camera, tried to approach Buckingham but she said two uniformed officers blocked and pushed her.
"When two cops rushed to me and prevented me from coming to Buckingham, I realized they were there to escort the AG. I was shocked when it happened," she added. "It happened so fast, and the Buckinghams, flanked by Ogumoro and Nekaifes, moved quickly from the vehicle to the sliding glass doors to get to the ramp to the TSA in a matter of seconds. I didn’t expect the officers to push me back like that, and they did it just as the Buckinghams moved into my view."
She said after the Buckinghams had already moved through the sliding glass doors and up the ramp, Ogumoro and a ports police officer came out to retrieve their carry-on bags from the vehicle. Ogumoro carried one duffel bag, and the ports police officer carried three bags, she added
According to Sablan, she asked the officers "what they were there for and they all said ‘no comment,’ and repeatedly told me to move back, and when I asked on what grounds, they didn’t reply. I asked one of the officers for his name, and he didn’t reply."
For his part, Hunter, who had parked the car and was coming up to meet Sablan, saw the Buckinghams pass right by him with the escorts, and then he witnessed the officers pushing the KSPN reporter. He yelled at the officers and told them to stop harassing Sablan. An officer replied: "We’re not harassing your wife."
Sablan tried to get a media pass at the Delta Airlines counter but she was asked to see the customs police first. She said she never got into the departure area.
Hours earlier, Variety was told that OPA investigators were at the Aquarius Tower Hotel where Buckingham was staying. The investigators tried to serve the penal summons to the AG, but his wife said Buckingham wasn’t in their room.
Later at the airport, Sablan said she learned that Buckingham was served the penal summons before he boarded the Delta flight to Narita, Japan at around 6 a.m.
Sablan said she waited for DPS Deputy Commissioner Ambrosio Ogumoro to come back out the same way he had entered the departure area while escorting the Buckinghams, but he never did.
"I was told that he probably left the airport through a different exit," she added.
In a separate interview, Sen. Frank Q. Cruz, R-Tinian and the chairman of the Senate Committee on Executive Appointments and Government Investigation, said if the DPS officers were at the airport to block OPA investigators from serving the summons to the AG, then that was obstruction of justice.
Cruz expects the court to issue a warrant of arrest against Buckingham.
U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan issued the following statement:
"All of us in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands are horrified by the reported use of some Department of Public Safety officers to try to block service of a legal summons to appear in court and to facilitate the flight of the attorney general from our islands. When those we rely on to uphold the law appear to be obstructing justice, we all fear for our safety and grieve for our commonwealth.
"Fortunately, there are individuals among us with the courage and determination to stand up for the rule of law. Their service protects us from those in power who believe they can rule our islands by force.
"Mr. Mike Pai, Attorney George Hasselback, and all the staff at the Office of the Public Auditor are to be congratulated for the bravery they have shown in serving the public interest. Clearly, there are powerful forces at work to threaten and intimidate them, yet they have risen above fear to bring these charges of public corruption against the attorney general."
[PIR editor’s note: The Saipan Tribunereported that Governor Benigno Fitial, in stating his support for Buckingham, said "his ‘biggest regret in life’ is appointing Michael Pai as public auditor in 2008. …The governor believes that Pai has a personal ax to grind with Buckingham, ‘and is now using the resources of OPA to advance his own personal vendetta.’"]
"The private citizens, who brought this issue to the public auditor and kept up the pressure for action, are to be commended for their bravery, as well. Despite threats, personal attacks, and criticism of their efforts, these citizens never relented in their collective actions to ensure that until these charges are finally resolved they remain in the public attention.
"We must also remember that there are many good officers in the Department of Public Safety, who were not involved in this incident. These officers work under difficult circumstances, under threat themselves, and without essential resources. As a member of Congress I have been working to get our police officers the basics they need, uniforms and vehicles, so they can serve the public effectively and with honor. They never can do so, however, if those at the very top of our government are corrupt.
"As to the specific charges against Attorney General Buckingham, I can only say that in our system of justice everyone is presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law. Mr. Buckingham deserves every opportunity to defend himself; and it is my hope that our commonwealth will be stronger and safer once judgment has been rendered in this case.
"I have always been concerned that the resources of the commonwealth government could be used to promote a particular candidate for federal office or to coerce government employees with respect to a federal election. For that reason, my election committee filed an open government request in 2010 to make public all records of the attorney general’s alleged use of his office for political purposes. The resulting investigation has now led to charges being brought against Mr. Buckingham.
"In my capacity as a member of Congress I also made sure that the inspector general conducted a full investigation of the management of federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. Findings in that investigation are now a basis for some of the charges being brought against Attorney General Buckingham. Whatever federal or local laws were violated or corrupt practices took place on the part of Mr. Buckingham or any other public official or private individual in the expenditure of federal funds is, again, a matter to be determined in a court of law.
We are all, of course, saddened by these events. We are saddened to lose our trust in those we elect or who are appointed to public office. We are saddened to think of the shame the many honest civil servants must feel at these charges of corruption in government offices. We are saddened to think of the personal cost to those individuals and their families, who have risked physical injury to protect us and keep us all informed of these events.
"We should take heart, however, knowing that we live in a commonwealth where ultimately no one is above the law and where there are still brave men and women who are willing to stand up and fight for what is right."
Buckingham, in his email to the Variety on Sunday, noted that "earlier on Friday I received a gracious letter from Congressman Sablan.... He states: ‘Though many people might assume that you and I are antagonists, as you leave your post as the commonwealth’s attorney general I feel impelled to reach out a hand and say thank you for your service.’ I am grateful to Congressman Sablan for his kind words. I also appreciate that he recognizes that the back-and-forth of fulfilling responsibilities should not be taken personally."
OPA filed the charges against the AG in Superior Court on Friday.
In a telephone interview on Friday, OPA legal counsel George Hasselback said their complaint involves two counts of misconduct in public office and two counts of CNMI Ethics Act and election law violations.
Buckingham, who announced his resignation on Wednesday, was set to leave this weekend.
A former assistant AG, Hasselback said the case against Buckingham had been under investigation "for quite some time."
"We have always anticipated filing criminal charges against [him] but his decision to leave the CNMI caused us to accelerate the timeline," he added.
Asked for comment on Friday, Press Secretary Angel A. Demapan said the administration was not aware of the filing.
"The administration has no comment at this time as the governor and lt. governor have not had an opportunity to see any information surrounding this development," he said.
The charges against Buckingham stemmed from the controversial "meet and greet" party he hosted at the residence of Gov. Benigno R. Fitial for the administration’s congressional candidate in the 2010 election, and the $492,000 sole-source contract awarded to former Secretary of Commerce Mike Ada’s Integrated Professionals Solution.
Buckhingham was charged with the use of public supplies, services, time and personnel for campaign activities (count I), use of the name of a government department or agency to campaign and/or express support for a candidate running for public office (count II), misconduct in public office (count III), failure to produce documents or information (count IV), and misconduct in public office (count V).
OPA said counts I to III occurred on or about July 26, 2010 and Aug. 28, 2010.
According to the complaint, Buckingham, in his capacity as attorney general, did, and/or through members of his staff who were all employees of the CNMI government, "plan, organize, and disseminate information and invitations regarding a gathering hosted by [the AG], the purpose of which, in whole or in part, was to provide a platform for which a then-candidate for public office could address those present regarding his candidacy."
The complaint added, "These actions were undertaken in whole, or in part, by public employees during working hours, using publically owned equipment, included, but not limited to, computers, phones, and other office equipment of the Office of the Attorney General."
OPA said count IV occurred on Nov. 17, 2011 when Buckingham "knowingly refused to provide documents and/or information requested by the public auditor pursuant to an investigation conducted [regarding] potential violations of the [CNMI] Government Ethics Code Act of 1992."
As for count V, OPA said the offense occurred on or about Oct. 20, 2010 when Buckingham, as the attorney general, "had a legal duty to review all proposed contracts" with the CNMI and certify that the CNMI government "had the legal capacity to enter into the same."
Buckingham had "a concurrent legal duty to refuse to certify that the commonwealth had legal capacity to enter into contracts that violated CNMI laws and/or regulations."
Despite these duties, Buckingham "certified that the CNMI had the legal capacity to enter into a specific contract that violated both CNMI law and regulations," OPA said, referring to the Ada contract.
Buckingham as the attorney general "had a legal duty to act to prevent the continued performance of a contract that violated CNMI laws and/or regulations upon becoming aware that such a contract violated CNMI laws and/or regulations. Despite these duties, [Buckingham] failed to act to halt the performance of a contract entered into by the [CNMI] that violated both CNMI laws and/or regulations," the complaint stated.
On late Friday afternoon, Superior Court clerk of court Bernardita A. Sablan issued a penal summons to Buckingham, informing him to a appear in court on Monday morning, Aug. 6, 2012.
"If you do not appear," the summons stated, "an application may be made for the issuance of a warrant for your arrest. You are entitled to be represented by a lawyer. If you are unable to afford a lawyer, you may be entitled to the services of an appointed lawyer at no expense to you by calling the Adult Probation Office to apply for these services."
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