Former CNMI Governor Pleads Guilty To Misconduct, Conspiracy

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Fitial plea deal sees him convicted of one felony, one misdemeanor

By Ferdie De La Torre

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, May 14, 2015) – Former governor Benigno R. Fitial pleaded guilty yesterday to two offenses, making him the first chief executive of the Commonwealth to be convicted.

"Guilty, your honor," the 69-year-old Fitial said when Superior Court Associate Judge David A. Wiseman asked him how he pleads to the charges of misconduct in public office and conspiracy to commit theft of services.

Wiseman accepted Fitial’s guilty plea and ordered him to appear on Saipan for his sentencing on June 17, 2015, at 1:30pm.

Misconduct in public office is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and up to $1,000 fine, while conspiracy to commit theft of services is a felony that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Fitial was in Makati, Philippines, when he appeared at the change of plea hearing via teleconference. The hearing was held in the U.S. District Court for the NMI in Garapan because it has sophisticated communication equipment.

Fitial’s lawyer, Stephen Nutting, and Office of the Public Auditor legal counsel George L. Hasselback, appeared in federal court.

Wiseman allowed Fitial to remain seated during the proceedings due to his medical condition. Seen in the video screen seated to Fitial’s left was his wife, Josefina.

Wiseman ordered the parties to file a sentencing memorandum on or before June 10, 2015.

The judge said pursuant to a CNMI Supreme Court decision he will request the Office of the Adult Probation to prepare a presentence investigation report unless Fitial waives the report.

Fitial and Nutting told the court that they waive the right to have a presentence investigation report.

The offense of misconduct in public office refers to the time when Fitial had his masseuse—a female Chinese who was at that time a prisoner at the Department of Corrections in Susupe—temporarily released so she could massage him at his house on Jan. 8, 2010.

The court previously dismissed this charge but, under the plea agreement, the parties agreed to vacate the dismissal.

The conspiracy to commit theft of services refers to Fitial’s role in former attorney general Edward T. Buckingham’s efforts to evade lawful service of process during his departure from the Commonwealth at the Francisco C. Ada/Saipan International Airport on Aug. 3 or 4, 2012.

Hasselback stated that, according to the factual basis for the plea, on Jan. 8, 2010, Fitial, in his capacity as governor, conspired with DOC and Department of Public Safety personnel to wrongfully remove his masseuse from the custody of the U.S. Federal Marshals in the middle of the night to provide him a massage.

Hasselback said Fitial also conspired with other government officials and agents on Aug. 3 and 4, 2012, to provide services for Buckingham in the form of an armed escort—consisting of public employees driving public vehicles, while being compensated using public funds.

Hasselback said the purpose of the escort was to shield Buckingham from being served with judicial summons. He said the value of those services was at least $250, but less than $20,000.

The parties did not agree on an appropriate sentence to be imposed but that each shall be free to make their recommendations to the court.

In return for Fitial’s plea, the government agrees to dismiss the remaining three other charges—two counts of misconduct in public office and a count of theft of services.

In an interview after the hearing, Nutting said Fitial decided to plead guilty because he understands the kind of toll the case is putting on his family, "there’s a lot of pressure and it was very hard on his wife and children, especially."

"He also saw from the supporters that have been through with these proceedings throughout. It was not good for them either," Nutting said.

The lawyer said Fitial wanted to do what he could to put an end to this "as painlessly as possible" for all concerned.

When asked about his sentencing recommendation, Nutting said he will recommend for no prison term.

He pointed out that the principal individual who benefitted from the conspiracy crime was Buckingham, who did not get a jail term.

Nutting said the former governor has decided to throw himself at the mercy of the court.

"It’s not my decision. It’s not Hasselback’s decision," he said.

Nutting said that’s one of the things the judge pointed out in the end.

"As long as the court has the opportunity to dispense justice the way he feels is appropriate, he was going to accept the plea agreement," he said.

Nutting said they all have faith that Wiseman will hand down justice accordingly.

When asked about Fitial’s health condition, Nutting said he visited Fitial in the Philippines three times over the last four months and he noted that the former governor has been progressing pretty well.

"He’s got some problems, but his physical therapy is supposed to end at the end of this month. He seems to be doing better day by day," the lawyer added.

In a joint statement yesterday, Hasselback and Chief Prosecutor Leonardo Rapadas expressed their sincere gratitude to the witnesses, investigators, and all other persons who contributed to the investigation and prosecution of the case.

"This day marks a major milestone in the struggle against public corruption in the CNMI and should serve as a profound reminder to government officials that their offices are held in public trust, and that no member of our community, regardless of their position, is beyond the reach of our laws," Hasselback and Rapadas said.

Attorney General Edward Manibusan said that Fitial had sworn to uphold the laws of the Commonwealth when took his oath as governor, but he ignored them for his own gratification.

"The laws of the CNMI apply to all citizens without exception and we will ask the court to tell him he cannot bypass the laws and that he be sentenced accordingly," Manibusan said.

Fitial resigned as governor on Feb. 20, 2013, days after the House of Representatives impeached him on charges of corruption, felony, and neglect of duty.

In May 2014, the government, through Hasselback as special prosecutor, filed the criminal charges against Fitial.

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