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Villagomez, sister, husband to serve time for corruption

By Raquel Bagnol SAIPAN, CNMI (Mariana Variety, Aug. 6, 2009) - Former Lieutenant governor Timothy P. Villagomez will serve 87 months, or seven years and three months, in jail while his sister Joaquina and her husband, former Commerce secretary James Santos, will each serve six-and-a-half years in a federal prison in connection with their past corrupt deals at the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. involving U.S. funds.

U.S. District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands Chief Judge Alex Munson handed down the sentence to Villagomez and Mr. Santos yesterday morning while Mrs. Santos got her sentence late in the afternoon.

The three must also restitute the U.S. government US$346, 125 for their offenses. Each must also perform 200 hours of community work service upon release.

A somber mood dominates Munson’s chamber as the relatives of the three grieve over the prison terms meted to them.

A12-man jury convicted the three of five counts conspiracy, wire fraud, theft of federal funds and bribery.

Munson sentenced Villagomez to 60 months imprisonment for the offense of conspiracy, and 87 months each for counts 2, 3 and 4.

The sentences will be served concurrently, which means a total of 87 months imprisonment and a supervised release of three years.

The defendants must not commit another federal crime, use or possess uncontrolled substance, submit to collection of DNA sample, prohibit from possession of firearms or dangerous weapons and provide the Probation Office with financial information when required. The mandatory drug testing has been waived for all three defendants they do not present a risk or danger to the community.

U.S. Assistant Attorney Eric O’Malley recommended a 15-year jail term for Villagomez and nine years for the Santos couple.

O’Malley said he respects the court’s decision but believes that a stiffer sentence would have sent a stronger message against people who will get involve in public corruption.

O’Malley said the three will remain free until the Bureau of Prisons asked that they be surrendered to the U.S. Marshal.

He said the bureau will also determine which federal prison the three will be assigned.

The judge said the three must call the Probation Office every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 – 11 a.m. to determine if a detention facility at the Bureau of Prisons has been allocated for them.

Defense lawyers Leilani Lujan for Villagomez, Victorino DLG. Torres for Mr. Santos and Ramon Quichocho for Mrs. Santos asked the court for leniency and to step outside the sentencing guidelines for the defendants, asking for probation or home confinement for the defendants. Villagomez’s two other lawyers David Lujan and Joey San Nicolas were also present at the hearing.

Lujan objected to the US$346,125 total amount of loss and pointed out that no determination as to the total amount of loss involved was made by the jury.

Lujan argued that there has been no proof or evidence that Villagomez planned and negotiated any of the alleged crime in the case or that he imposed or pressured any of the CUC employees to do his bidding as an official.

The defense asked the court to step out of the sentencing guidelines and reduce the level of crime based on the defendant’s acceptance of responsibility by resigning from their positions after the verdict.

The defense said that the numerous letters of support and an unsolicited petition with over 600 signatures representing cross-sections of the CNMI is enough to attest to the high respect and esteem the defendants hold in the community.

The defense asked the court for consideration on the defendant’s extra-ordinary family ties and responsibilities.

The defense said that incarceration on the three defendants would mean huge burden on their families.

Lujan said that Villagomez help his three other siblings in taking care of their sick mother. She said that Villagomez’s sister Joaquina face imprisonment, and his other brother Kevin was ill. To add to this, Lujan said that Villagomez had five children and his wife’s income could not support the family.

Torres representing Mr. Santos said his client takes care of his mother, an amputee who lives with them. Torres said the Santos couple had two children, one of them a minor, and Joaquina takes care of her mother, too.

Quichocho, representing Mrs. Santos asked Munson for compassion in sentencing her, and to "take into consideration Joaquina’s sick mother and mother-in-law, and a teenage daughter who needs at least one parent at home."

O’Malley said the defendants are all major players in the scheme to defraud the government.

He said that the transactions, especially the sixth which took place in 2007 happened at the time when CUC was struggling to survive.

He added that only 10 drums or 550 gallons or Rydlyme was legitimately requested but 3,000 gallons were purchased. He said that had Mrs. Santos added one more gallon to the 3,000 gallons, the Commonwealth could have saved US$15,000.

"He is supposed to be a role model but he breached the public trust," O’Malley said.

The government also argued that there was no acceptance of responsibility from the defendants by resigning from their positions after the verdict.

"I hope that tomorrow, when somebody from Capital Hill will think of stealing funds, they will think of what happened today," O’Malley said.

In a statement U.S. Attorney for Districts of Guam and NMI Leonardo M. Rapadas said the sentences send a message to all government officials that "no matter what positions of authority they hold, they will be held to high standards of conduct because of the trust placed on them by the people."

O’Malley prosecuted the case with First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Strand.

Munson said that the sentences imposed to the defendants are just and fair. He said that the defendants were sentenced for four very serious offenses. Munson added that the defendants are well-educated and come from privileged families, and the court took into consideration the fact that the defendants are first-time offenders with no criminal history.

Munson said that the sentences of the defendants were the lowest in the sentencing guidelines, "not greater than necessary and this should serve to promote respect of the law," Munson said. He added that he hopes this should be a deterrent to others who would follow the same.

Munson said that probation is not appropriate in the case of the defendants.

"The defendants’ case is not an exception in terms of family ties and responsibilities," Munson said.

The judge said that he did not see any sign of acceptance of responsibility from the defendants and "resigning from their positions only after 19 days of jury trial does not show acceptance of responsibility."

Munson said that based on earlier statements of the defense, the defendants has a huge family who will come out to take over the responsibilities left by the defendants.

Villagomez and the Santos couple have 10 days to file their appeal in court. Munson said the court will hear the defendants’ motions for continued release after Sept. 1.

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