CNMI Judge Reinstates Arrest Warrant For Fitial

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Former governor currently believed to be in Philippines

By Andrew O. De Guzman

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, June 21, 2013) – After expressing "optimism" that former Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Gov. Benigno R. Fitial would answer criminal charges against him, Superior Court Judge David A. Wiseman yesterday reinstated a warrant of arrest he issued against the former local chief executive on March 6, 2013.

Fitial, 65, who resigned from office in February after being impeached by the House of Representatives is the last and highest CNMI official in the conspiracy case to thwart service of a penal summons and complaint to then-Attorney General Edward T. Buckingham on Aug. 3-4, 2012.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation assisted the Office of the Public Auditor in serving Buckingham with a copy of the penal summons and criminal complaint before he boarded a plane on Aug. 4, 2012.

Wiseman vacated the penal summons for Fitial issued on March 7, 2013, following the submission by the Office of Public Auditor of an affidavit charging Fitial with seven offenses relating to the Aug. 3 and 4, 2012 incidents.

"The arrest warrant signed by [the] court on March 6, 2013 for the arrest of defendant Benigno R. Fitial on March 6, 2013 shall be in full force and effect," according to Wiseman’s one-page order, which he signed yesterday. It was entered into the records at 12:41 noon.

Fitial is believed to be in his wife’s hometown, Gapan, Nueva Ecija, a Philippine province north of Manila. The U.S. has an extradition treaty with the Philippines.

Asked for comment, Press Secretary Angel Demapan said: "The administration does not comment on matters being actively litigated in court. This case is being handled by a special prosecutor and, as such, the special prosecutor is the responsible authority to respond to inquiries regarding this matter."

For his part, OPA legal counsel George Hasselback, who is prosecuting the case, said "we’re considering the appropriate options and haven’t made any determinations yet."

OPA charged Fitial with conspiracy to commit theft of services (6CMC§303); conspiracy to obstruct justice by interference with service of process (6CMC§303); conspiracy to obstruct justice by interference with a law enforcement officer or witness (6CMC§303); theft of services (6CMC§1607[b]); misconduct in public office (6CMC§3202); obstructing justice by interference with a law enforcement officer or witness (6CMC§3302); and obstructing justice by interference with service of process (6CMC§3303).

The penal summons issued by Wiseman in lieu of a warrant of arrest against Fitial remains un-served, Hasselback told Wiseman as the special prosecutor urged the court to reissue the warrant of arrest against Fitial.

An un-served penal summons as opposed to an arrest warrant "limits the actions that the commonwealth can take to return Fitial to the CNMI such that the prosecution of the… case cannot proceed in any meaningful way," Hasselback told the court.

Wiseman earlier said that he "wished to issue a penal summons for the appearance of Fitial before the Superior Court out of respect for both the CNMI Office of the Governor and Fitial himself as a former chief executive of the CNMI."

But Hasselback pointed out that OPA had never received a call from Fitial or anyone acting on the former governor’s behalf.

Five others also accused with Fitial have been separately arrested and have each denied charges against them.

They are Buckingham, former acting Department of Public Safety (DPS) Commissioner Ambrosio T. Ogumoro; Commonwealth Ports Authority Police Chief Jordan Lee Ilo Kosam, 40; Jermaine Joseph Wabol Nekaifes, 39, who was employed as the chauffer to the former governor under the DPS; and CPA harbor security chief Capt. John Taisacan Rebuenog, 34. They are on pretrial release.

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