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Jury to begin deliberations today

By Ferdie de la Torre

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, April 24, 2009)—The prosecution and defense lawyers spent the whole day yesterday for closing arguments in the ongoing jury trial of Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Villagomez, James A. Santos, and Joaquina V. Santos.

When Saipan Tribune left the courtroom at 5:15pm yesterday, Guam attorney David J. Lujan, counsel for Villagomez, was still conducting his closing arguments.

The 12 jurors are expected to begin their deliberations today, Friday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric O'Malley discussed the documents and witnesses' testimonies relating to six Commonwealth Utilities Corp.'s transactions to purchase thousands of gallons of a descaling chemical called Rydlyme.

O'Malley explained how each transaction began and the involvement of Villagomez and the Santos couple in the deals.

The transactions involved the purchase of 375 gallons of Rydlyme worth $13,125 in April 1998; the payment of $70,000 for 1,000 gallons of Rydlyme each for Tinian and Rota in June 1998; the payment of $105,000 for 1,000 gallons each for Saipan, Tinian, and Rota in September 1998; the purchase of 1,400 gallons of Rydlyme worth $49,000 for Saipan in June 1999; the purchase of 1,400 gallons of Rydlyme worth $49,000 in January 2000; and the $120,000 deal for 3,300 gallons of Rdlyme.

O'Malley said witnesses testified that only small quantities of Rydlyme were used, but Villagomez kept ordering more of the chemical.

He said the chemical was not used for its intended purpose-to clean the cooling system of CUC's power engines-but was instead used to clean tools, cement floors, and toilets.

O'Malley cited the testimony of former CUC auditor Soc Nilo Villanueva, who found multiple violations of ethical and procurement regulations.

The prosecutor said that after the initial five transactions, things quieted down because Villagomez was out of CUC as he was elected congressman. But when Villagomez was elected lieutenant governor in 2006, O'Malley said, Gov. Benigno Fitial appointed him to run CUC and thus the 2007 transaction began.

O'Malley said among a proof of dishonesty or cheating was that Villagomez ordered for Rydlyme even though he is not a mechanic but a CUC executive director, in violation of CUC regulations.

He said James Santos ordered 496 gallons of Rydlyme more than a month before the purchase order was even issued and the price markup was 377 percent.

On the 2007 deal, the Santos couple spent only $30,676 to buy the chemical, giving them an instant $90,000 profit when they sold it to CUC, according to the prosecutor. The transactions, O'Malley said, were designed to maximize profit for the Santos couple.

The payments, he said, were made over the other vendors, who were waiting for up to a year to get paid.

The big thing in this case is the conflict of interest, O'Malley said. Joaquina Santos and James Santos is Villagomez's sister and brother-in-law respectively.

He said Villagomez signed the purchase orders and checks despite a clear conflict of interest and he was also pushing for the contract.

Lujan, counsel for Villagomez, discredited the government's key witnesses-former CUC executive director Anthony Guerrero, Villanueva, and CUC procurement manager Manny Sablan.

Lujan said O'Malley called Guerrero a puppet of Villagomez, but that the prosecutor should ask himself how they control Guerrero, who signed a plea agreement and entered a guilty plea.

Lujan said O'Malley mentioned dishonesty and cheating, but "who pulled the string of Guerrero, the puppet?"

The defense lawyer said Guerrero admitted in his testimony that there was a hammer over his head.

Guerrero had testified that he approved the sole-source contract for the 2007 transaction because he was in an environment of pressure and did not want to disappoint the lieutenant governor.

O'Malley said after Joaquina Santos got the $50,000 payment, she deposited the amount into the account of her company, Blue Pacific, on Dec. 6, 2007. The following day, James Santos signed a $15,000 check and made it payable to Villagomez. On the same day, Dec. 7, Villagomez deposited the $15,000 check into his personal account, according to the prosecutor.

Lujan said the government is exaggerating in this case just like Sablan and Villanueva.

Lujan went all over the six transactions and stated there was absolutely nothing wrong with those deals. He questioned why many persons, including former acting Power Division managers Jose S. Demapan and Almondo Santos, whose names were all over the transactions, were not called to the witness stand.

He said there is no absolutely no evidence that Villagomez bullied the contracts.

Lujan went over the audit report of Villanueva and stated that the witness was exaggerating. He said Villanueva, like Sablan and O'Malley, was prone to exaggeration.

Victorino Torres, counsel for James Santos, said there was no plan to commit a crime for any of the 1998 to 2000 transactions.

Torres said there was no evidence that James Santos used his position as then Commerce Secretary in order for Blue Pacific to get the contract.

Torres also cited some apparent inconsistencies in the testimony of the government's key witnesses. Torres asked why the government did not call to the witness stand Almondo Santos, who asked for an increase in the amount of Rydlyme. Torres said the price markup is not illegal and that the training for Rydlyme is evidence of good faith.

He said William Powell of Rydlyme, who came to Saipan for training, was paid by James Santos for his stay on the island. Torres said Powell even went to Rota to check the power engines and promote Rydlyme, which is evidence of good faith.

On the bribery issue, Torres said the money to repair the boat was not bribery.

"You don't bribe your brother or family member," he said.

Ramon Quichocho, counsel for Joaquina Santos, said the 1998 to 2000 and the 2007 transactions were all proper.

Quichocho noted that some witnesses gave conflicting or inaccurate information. He said there was no secret in the deals as everything was in the open.

He said the government's star witness-Villanueva-turned out to be the weakest link.

The defense lawyer said Villanueva gathered selected pieces of information to support his report. "Making a lot of money is not a crime," Quichocho said.

Quichocho said the U.S. government spent a total of $8,915 for a witness whose testimony was subsequently stricken by the court.

With respect to Guerrero, Quichocho said he believes he is a good person, but only got the wrong legal advice.

"How can entering into a contract to deliver a product in exchange for payment be a crime?" Quichocho asked.

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