Former CNMI Attorney General Tenders Second Resignation

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CNMI Attorney General Tenders Second Resignation Local attorney Viola Alepuyo serving as acting AG

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Aug. 14, 2012) – On the eve of his three-week off-island trip, Gov. Benigno R. Fitial announced yesterday that he accepted Edward T. Buckingham's resignation as Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands’ attorney general and appointed attorney Viola Alepuyo as acting AG a little over a week after Buckingham left Saipan despite being served a penal summons in connection with criminal charges filed against him.

This also comes about a week after Buckingham rescinded his original resignation.

Fitial said Buckingham resigned anew "due to personal and medical reasons."

Buckingham is the subject of a bench warrant and $50,000 cash bail after he failed to show up in the Superior Court despite being served a penal summons in connection with criminal charges filed by the Office of the Public Auditor against him.

The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) tried to represent Buckingham, but the judge didn't accept the representation in this criminal matter.

As of yesterday, there's no telling whether Buckingham will ever step foot on Saipan again.

[PIR editor's note: Saipan Tribune also reports that the Office of the Public Auditor’s criminal case against Buckingham will continue, regardless of the now-former attorney general’s resignation.]

The circumstances surrounding Buckingham's departure from Saipan have also been shrouded with controversies. Armed police and ports police officers allegedly helped shield the AG from being served a penal summons, drawing flak from lawmakers wanting an investigation into alleged abuse of power and misuse of government resources. An FBI agent was able to serve Buckingham the penal summons before his Aug. 4 morning flight took off.

Because Buckingham's resignation is "effective immediately," his 30-day annual leave ends immediately. This means he is no longer paid from the effective date of his resignation.

'Retaliation'

Fitial, in a statement yesterday afternoon, said he accepted Buckingham's resignation effective immediately, but defended his AG of three years.

"In the days that followed Mr. Buckingham's initial announcement of his intent to resign, he became the subject of retaliation through what obviously appeared as a rushed filing of charges against him," Fitial said in a statement.

Fitial said these events "cast an unnecessary cloud over the Office of the Attorney General."

"So in an effort to ensure that the OAG can move forward with its duties, I have accepted Mr. Buckingham's immediate resignation," said Fitial, as he also announced his appointment of Alepuyo.

Fitial said "now that the AG has resigned, the Office of the Attorney General must continue to faithfully serve the people of the Commonwealth."

"To ensure that stability and direction is maintained, I have appointed Viola Alepuyo as acting attorney general," he added.

Under CNMI statutes, appointments in acting capacity should not exceed 90 days.

New acting AG's message

Alepuyo, in a statement around 7:30pm last night, thanked Fitial and Lt. Gov. Eloy S. Inos "for this opportunity to serve in this capacity."

She said when the governor asked her if she would consider helping him by being acting AG, she took some time to ask some people their thoughts on the matter.

"I received advice from many people. One person said he hated the governor and warned me not to take the position and let the whole administration just burn to the ground. A few said it wasn't my problem and I should not get involved. I was advised, 'why take a position just to be publicly ridiculed and criticized?' They said, 'stay in private practice and just make money.' Most people gave me this advice: If you can help, especially now when we really need it the most-please do your best to help," Alepuyo said.

She also said, "To all of us living here, the CNMI is our home. And if our home is our castle, then in time of danger and crisis, we do not retreat and run away from our castle. We rise up and defend our castle. We rise to the challenge to save our home. We rise to save our CNMI."

Alepuyo said she humbly asks the public for their prayers and patience, "the challenges are great and resources are limited."

"The work that needs to be done cannot happen overnight. But it most definitely will not happen if we simply do nothing. Let us then begin the work that needs to be done," she added.

Concerns

Alepuyo said the AG "is the attorney for the Commonwealth."

"The duties and responsibilities are spelled out in the Constitution and public laws. I can only follow the Constitution and the law. The Attorney General's duties and responsibilities are limited to legal matters of the Commonwealth. Matters of public policy or politics are not an area the Office of Attorney General and should never be over-lapping with its legal duties," she said.

On the issue of transparency, Alepuyo said just as a private attorney gives confidential legal advice to his or her client, the attorney general gives legal advice to the governor, lieutenant governor, as well as departments and agencies.

"To the extent possible when I am able to make public any information on matters and issues, the Office of the Attorney General will issue a press release," she said.

But this early, Alepuyo's appointment as acting AG has been drawing concerns.

"Can a political party officer serve as attorney general of the CNMI?" one lawmaker asked.

Alepuyo is the national committeewoman for the Republican Party of the NMI Association, which also has the governor as its president and chairman.

Fitial, along with Alepuyo and at least seven other local Republicans, will be heading to Florida for the Republican National Convention later this month.

Alepuyo on Buckingham

Alepuyo said on the issue of Buckingham, "the matter is now before the court."

"Let the Office of the Public Auditor and Mr. Buckingham's privately retained attorney handle that matter. As to the issue of the alleged DPS escort of Mr. Buckingham, let the respective law enforcement agency conduct and complete their investigation. Just like any case, the Office of the Attorney General awaits the case to be forwarded for review and prosecution, if warranted," she said.

Alepuyo's message to the attorneys and staff of the Office of the Attorney General is this: "We have enormous challenges ahead of us. Let us stabilize the office. Let us assess the crisis and what needs to be done. I want you all to know that I work long hours; I like to be prepared and knowledgeable about the issues and cases. I expect the people in the office to work hard and know their respective cases and assignment."

Another government official said yesterday that Alepuyo would need to recuse herself from matters involving the case against Buckingham, among other things.

Alepuyo is the wife of the then delegate candidate-now Superior Court associate judge Joseph N. Camacho-who was allegedly hosted by Buckingham at a meet-and-greet party at the governor's house in August 2010 and this is among the subjects of the Office of the Public Auditor's criminal case against Buckingham.

'Peculiar case'

Press secretary Angel Demapan, in an interview with reporters yesterday afternoon, said the case against Buckingham is a "peculiar one" compared to other criminal cases.

"This involves yes the attorney general at the time. However, the laws of the Commonwealth have to be examined to determine whether representation is warranted and in what areas and to what degree. We understand that representation in the case of a criminal filing is not possible and that's something that the new acting general will look into, and will come out with a determination on the position of the Office of the Attorney General," Demapan told reporters.

Demapan said Alepuyo "is a seasoned professional attorney and knows very well at which point in time she would recuse herself and yield to other attorneys within the Office of the Attorney General."

"I'm pretty sure when that time comes, matters specific to that, Ms. Alepuyo will make a decision to that effect," he said.

When asked whether Fitial has a plan to appoint Alepuyo as permanent AG needing the Senate advice and confirmation, Demapan said, "At this point in time, the administration has not selected anyone for the nomination to the post of attorney general that would undergo the confirmation process at the Senate.

"This is something that the governor and the lieutenant governor are now discussing. In the coming days or within this 90-day period, the administration is anticipated to come out with a nomination for AG," Demapan said.

Alepuyo is also either current or former counsel for some government entities including the NMI Retirement Fund board and the Public Utilities Commission.

She has also been recently subcontracted by a Washington, D.C.-based firm that was awarded an almost $300,000 contract to work with the Department of Commerce.

Investigation continues

Buckingham's resignation, however, is not stopping the Senate Committee on Executive Appointments and Governmental Investigations (EAGI) from investigating the incident at the Saipan airport involving Buckingham and officers from the Department of Public Safety and the Commonwealth Ports Authority.

Sen. Frank Cruz (R-Tinian), chair of the EAGI Committee, said yesterday that Buckingham's resignation is "a relief for the people of the Commonwealth and its people and importantly, the integrity of the OAG."

"But still the EAGI Committee will not be satisfied until Buckingham returns and face the charges against him in a court of law," Cruz told Saipan Tribune.

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