DAMNING AUDIT LISTS TOP CNMI ATTORNEY’S VIOLATIONS

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Buckingham’s actions ‘violated criminal prohibitions’

By Haidee V. Eugenio SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Oct. 20, 2011) – In the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a December 2010 Office of the Public Auditor investigation report, which Gov. Benigno R. Fitial has not released, concluded that Attorney General Edward T. Buckingham's actions "violated criminal prohibitions" of both the Commonwealth Ethics Code Act and the Commonwealth Election Act when he hosted a campaign party for then delegate candidate Joseph N. Camacho at the governor's house in Gualo Rai on Aug. 28, 2010.

A copy of the 14-page OPA report and a two-page accompanying letter was leaked to the media and some members of the general public late Tuesday night.

It has since drawn varied reactions from the Fitial administration, Buckingham, and other individuals who also received a copy of the report from an anonymous individual who used the email address spnwikileaks@hushmail.com to leak the report.

The Fitial administration, OPA, and the Office of the Attorney General have not released the Dec. 13, 2010, report to the public, citing statutory restrictions.

This, despite Public Auditor Michael Pai's recommendation for Fitial and Lt. Gov. Eloy S. Inos to, among other things, release the investigative report and the accompanying letter.

Fitial is currently in Beijing, China for a National Governors Association economic forum with Chinese governors. In earlier interviews, he said he doesn't necessarily agree with OPA's findings.

Acting governor Eloy S. Inos said yesterday that the OPA report "is restricted in terms of public view under the law and that's how it is unless the governor, of course, decides to [release it]."

"Yes, I'm concerned about the fact that it was leaked. This is serious business, serious stuff," he told reporters during the ribbon cutting for a hybrid solar and wind turbine pole at the parking lot of the Office of the Governor on Capital Hill yesterday afternoon.

Buckingham, in a separate interview yesterday, said he has never hosted a political gathering, has never used his official position to endorse any candidate, and has never directed anyone to vote for any person.

"With regard to a report that may have been leaked or papers that may have been leaked, I haven't seen them, I don't know that any papers are official. I don't know that any such paper may be authentic," he said in an interview at the parking lot of the Office of the Governor.

Buckingham later issued a written statement reiterating what he said during the interview.

Pai has yet to respond to media inquiries. The public auditor went on leave yesterday, and might not be back until next week.

Both Buckingham and Pai are Fitial appointees.

In his two-page letter accompanying the 14-page investigation report, Pai told Fitial and Inos that based on the findings of the report, OPA concludes that the AG's actions violated criminal prohibitions of both the Commonwealth Ethics Code Act and the Commonwealth Election Act.

"Specifically, the AG committed a criminal violation of a CMC 8534(b) by using public time, personnel, and equipment for political campaign activities, and such use was not authorized by law or incidental to other lawful conduct," Pai said in the letter.

Pai also said in the report that the attorney general "committed a criminal violation of 1 CMC 6705 by using the name of a government agency or department to campaign for a candidate for public office."

The report concluded that Buckingham "was aware that the gathering at the Governor's Residence on August 28, 2010, was a hosting event for U.S. Delegate Candidate Joseph Norita Camacho, and that it was a political function."

"The investigation also indicates that the attorney general instructed, and was aware that his subordinate, Frieda Demapan, was conducting the planning for this political function during government working hours. Further, T. [Tina] Sakisat stated that the attorney general instructed her, during working hours, to inform certain staff that the gathering was a political function," the OPA report said.

Pai told Fitial and Inos that OPA has independent statutory authority to pursue criminal prosecution of these violations.

"However, after careful contemplation, OPA has determined that the cost of prosecution to the Commonwealth taxpayers would outweigh any potential benefits in terms of enforcing the Commonwealth laws and restoring the public's trust in its government," Pai said.

The public auditor told Fitial and Inos that OPA is instead "currently deferring to and relying upon your good judgment to impose appropriate remedial administrative sanctions."

OPA recommended the following administrative action:

Order the attorney general to make a written public admission of the wrongfulness of his conduct and publicly apologize for causing any loss of public confidence in the 2010 election;

Order the attorney general to completely reimburse the Commonwealth for any and all legal expenses paid by the Commonwealth for the outside counsel hired in this matter;

Issue public admonishment to the AG for his criminal actions;

Release the attached investigative report and this letter to the public.

None of these recommendations has been done since the OPA report was released.

"Writer recommends a disciplinary action against Attorney General Edward Buckingham or charge him for (1) Violation of the Commonwealth Election Law 1 CMC 6705(a) and 1 CMC 8534)b) and or (2) make the Investigative Report public and/or to answer the charges against him," the OPA report said.

Rep. Ray Yumul (R-Saipan), one of those who also received the leaked report, said it's "frustrating" that the OPA letter and report "started off strong with serious findings of the AG's violations of laws" but then leaned toward "cost-savings versus prosecuting the AG."

Yumul said the public auditor should have prosecuted the attorney general or anyone who is found violating criminal prohibitions of laws.

"The report is damning. It's disheartening that OPA found the AG in violation. But the AG said he didn't do anything wrong. That's the opposite of what the report says. Who has more credibility?" Yumul asked.

CNMI taxpayers paid US$12,940 for the billing sent by a private counsel hired to represent Buckingham in his official and personal capacity in connection with the OPA investigation of the AG's hosting of a delegate candidate last year.

Lawyer G. Anthony Long had a US$200 an hour contract with the government to defend Buckingham.

Given his hourly rate and the amount he billed the government, Long worked 64.7 hours on the AG issue from September 2010 to February 2011.

Rep. Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan), chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary and Governmental Operations, said yesterday he could not comment on the issue until after his panel meets today.

Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan (Ind-MP), one of those who filed a formal complaint to OPA and the Commonwealth Election Commission to have the AG investigated, said yesterday that "all of us who saw the video know the truth."

Sablan was referring to the video taken of the Aug. 28, 2010, political gathering at Fitial's private residence.

"The attorney general hosted a campaign party for Joe Camacho at Governor Fitial's mansion. He used government time, personnel, and equipment for political purposes. The attorney general broke the law. If the attorney general had any respect for the people of the Northern Mariana Islands, he would at least offer a public apology," Sablan told Saipan Tribune when asked for comment on the issue.

He also said: "And if he had any sense of honor, he would apologize to the public employees who were pressured into breaking Commonwealth election and/or ethics laws by their higher ups."

Glen Hunter, one of those who received and read the leaked copy of the OPA report and letter, said the public auditor said it best when he wrote that the AG's "[c]riminal acts and disregard for the rule of law [...] have the effect of seriously devaluing the public's confidence in its government. Rehabilitating public confidence is an important [...] process."

"I strongly urge the OPA to take the needed actions, however difficult they may be, and make every attempt to restore the public's confidence in this issue by appointing a special prosecutor as permitted by law," Hunter said when asked for comment.

The CNMI Senate has taken the initiative to have the attorney general investigated by the CNMI Bar Association for alleged ethical violations, mainly in relation to a separate matter when he approved a sole-source ARRA management contract worth almost US$400,000.

The same resolution that the Senate adopted also cited concerns about Buckingham's alleged ethical violations when he hosted a political gathering at the governor's house.

Most lawmakers asked yesterday said they have yet to read the leaked report.

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