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CNMI GOVERNOR ‘CLARIFIES’ FACTS ABOUT MASSEUSE RELEASE Extreme pain cited as reason for request

By Haidee V. Eugenio SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 15, 2010) - Gov. Benigno R. Fitial admitted yesterday to asking CNMI Corrections Commissioner Dolores M. Aldan last week to temporarily release from jail a defendant in a human smuggling case-whom he described as one of his best massage therapists-because he needed her services due to "severe" back pain.

He said he didn’t know that Qing Mei Cheng was in prison when he tried to reach her on the night of Jan. 7 when he began feeling severe back pain, until the early morning hours of Jan. 8, a few days before he was sworn into office for a second term.

In a joint statement with Fitial yesterday, Aldan took responsibility for the release of the defendant.

"I hope those reviewing it can understand that I understand the limitations on federal detainees but felt it was important to help the governor since he was in such severe pain. I made the decision to allow this visit to occur and regret that I was unable to reach federal officials or the attorney general prior to it happening. I have been advised and accept that I would not allow the visit again if the same facts arose," Aldan said in a statement.

Fitial, after a joint press conference with visiting Interior Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs Tony Babauta yesterday afternoon, replied "no comment" when reporters attempted to get his comments on the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s motion for an immediate hearing over the unauthorized release of Qing Mei Cheng from jail.

About an hour later, the Fitial administration released a statement explaining Fitial and Aldan’s side of the story.

The statement said Fitial and Aldan have each prepared a sworn statement "to clarify lingering questions surrounding the facilitated and secured transportation" of a federal detainee from the Department of Corrections facility in Susupe to the governor’s residence in Gualo Rai on Jan. 8 and back to the Corrections facility.

Fitial said he hopes his statement and that of the DOC commissioner will help paint a clearer picture of the events that took place.

"I made this request because this was an unusual situation where I needed to address the extraordinary pain I was experiencing and also wanted to follow proper procedures before a detainee is released from custody, even if only temporarily," said the governor.

Fitial said on the night of Jan. 7 and continuing into the early morning hours of Jan. 8, 2010, he experienced severe back pain and was unable to sleep.

"I tried to reach Qing Mei Cheng and found that she was in custody. I spoke with the Department of Corrections commissioner and asked her to get in contact with the attorney general."

The administration said Aldan attested to these facts in her sworn statement.

"I immediately tried to reach both the Attorney General and Don Hall who works for the U.S. Marshals [Service]. I know that we should coordinate on federal detainee removal from the facility prior to its occurrence. To the best of my recollection, I made about seven calls to the number I have for Deputy Hall and about six calls to the cell phone of the attorney general. I did not receive any return call and was unable to speak with either the Attorney General or Deputy Hall," said Aldan.

Fitial said after his conversation with Aldan, "Qing Mei Cheng arrived at my residence. DOC Commissioner and three other Corrections officers as well as my wife were present for the duration of Qing’s visit."

The statement said Aldan exercised her decision to facilitate a secured transport of the federal detainee after numerous unsuccessful attempts to reach both Attorney General Ed Buckingham and Hall.

"I made a decision that a short, escorted visit for detainee Qing Mei Cheng to the governor’s residence was appropriate. I also decided that we should have extra security just in case there were any later questions. Accordingly, I directed three officers to accompany me to the governor’s residence," said Aldan.

‘No questions, no promises’

The DOC commissioner also attested that the DOC staff and first lady Josie Fitial were present during the period that the massage therapy was administered.

"Following the conclusion of the massage therapy, I directed the return of Qing Mei Cheng to the DOC facility," Aldan said.

In both their sworn statements, Fitial and Aldan attested that no discussion regarding the detainee’s legal issues took place. The short dialogue was limited to pointing out which areas the severe pains were coming from.

"I also recall that I did not ask her about whatever legal situation she may now face and made no inquiries or promises to her of any kind," the governor said.

Aldan added that later on the same morning of Jan. 8, she was able to contact Deputy Marshall Don Hall and Attorney General Ed Buckingham to inform them of what had transpired.

Spinal surgeries

Fitial underwent two major spinal surgeries in October and December 2006.

Since then, Fitial said, he has been having persistent pain from the neck to his lower back. He chose not to take painkillers but has relied on massage therapy to relieve him of the pain.

The administration’s statement said the federal detainee has been providing massage therapy to the governor prior to her arrest and detention, and that her fees were paid through the company she worked for.

"I have found that massage therapy has been helpful for the temporary relief of back pain, including to aid in achieving restful sleep. Different massage therapists have had more or less success in relieving my back pain. One of the best has been Qing Mei Cheng," Fitial said.

The statement said Fitial’s back pains escalated beginning about Jan. 6, 2010, "but he was unable to seek necessary massage therapy as he continued to focus on his responsibilities as chief executive of the Commonwealth."

On Jan. 5, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency arrested Qing Mei Cheng, along with 21 others, in a sting operation targeting a group of Chinese nationals attempting to illegally travel from the CNMI to Guam via boat.

She was indicted that same day on 22 counts of attempting to bring an unauthorized alien into the United States. She was arraigned on Jan. 6, where she pleaded not guilty.

Citing a high risk of flight, the court denied bail and remanded her to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service. The Marshals then delivered her to the CNMI Department of Corrections, where she remains incarcerated.

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