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Five-year sentence mostly suspended

By Maripet L. Poso KOROR Palau (Palau Horizon, April 1, 2010) – In Palau, former Melekeok State Governor Lazarus Kodep was sentenced on Monday to five years imprisonment in Koror jail, all suspended except for six months, and a fine of US$10,000 for one count of misuse of public funds and one count of misconduct in public office. The amount to be restituted, however, is still to be determined.

"I apologize for what I have done," said the former governor during the sentencing. "I stand here apologizing to the court and the people of Melekeok. I am willing to pay for the crimes that I am accused of."

Kodep was accused of converting public funds to his own use on at least 100 occasions between 2003 and 2007. Court records reveal that Kodep committed the offense by "embezzling, stealing, purloining or knowingly converting to his use own use funds of the Melekeok State Government, and that defendant stole and converted to his own use funds in excess of US$100 belonging to the Melekeok State Treasury."

On February 22, Kodep has pleaded guilty to one count of misuse of public funds and one count of misconduct in public office. In return, the government has agreed to dismiss the money laundering case against him.

The maximum penalty for convictions of both charges is supposed to be 10 years imprisonment and/or US$10,000.00 fine for a possible maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment and US$20,000 in fines. However, the court took into consideration the support of the people of Melekeok, his age and health, and the fact that it was the governor’s first criminal offense.

"The court appreciates the letters of support from the chiefs of Melekeok and the six-page petition from the people of Melekeok," said Associate Justice Kathleen M. Salii. "And it is very rare that he has no prior cases at all."

She also said that she took into consideration that both counsels recognize the cooperation of Kodep.

Dr. Emais Roberts testified in court that the former governor has been his patient for the last 10 years. "He has heart problems and a history of diabetes and hypertension. He’s sick and he needs treatment," the doctor said. He added that the stigma of being in jail is stressful for him.

Michael Copeland, counsel for the government, recommended that Kodep be sentenced to eight years in prison and be fined US$20,000, given his confessions and admissions and the doctor’s testimony that the governor needs medication.

Kodep’s counsel, on the other hand, did not give recommendations. But he cited the former governor’s record as a law-abiding citizen of Palau. "He’ 61 years old, went through education, married to the same wife, has four kids," Oldiais Ngiraikelau said. "He does not have a single traffic violation; there was not a phase in his life where he has gone astray, except for these particular charges."

The court, however, stressed that the people expect better from public officials, and the former governor has to take responsibility for his actions.

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