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Former CNMI Attorney General Avoided Summons
Public safety, ports authority officers implicated in controversy

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Oct. 3, 2012) – Former attorney general Edward T. Buckingham avoided being served a penal summons by the Northern Marianas’ Office of the Public Auditor (OPA) from the moment he found out about it in the afternoon of Aug. 3, one of the witnesses told the Special Committee on Impeachment on Capital Hill yesterday.

This refusal by the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands’ (CNMI) highest law enforcement official to be served a penal summons spawned a series of events that the public now knows too well, including threats from police to arrest OPA investigators if they continue to serve the summons to Buckingham and the use of armed police and ports police officers as escorts to allegedly shield Buckingham from being served the summons until his departure from Saipan on Aug. 4.

A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent, however, was able to serve Buckingham the penal summons after OPA sought the FBI's help.

OPA chief investigator Juan Santos and investigator Juanette David-Atalig said on this matter involving Buckingham, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the Commonwealth Ports Authority (CPA) Ports Police didn't help them serve the penal summons.

The Impeachment Committee, however, was not able to confirm from any of the witnesses called yesterday whether or when Buckingham asked Gov. Benigno R. Fitial for help to avoid being served the summons in connection with criminal charges that OPA filed against him.

The panel is reviewing a resolution to impeach Fitial for 16 allegations of felony, corruption, and neglect of duty.

Fitial's police escort/driver, Capt. Jermaine Nekaifes, was among those who escorted Buckingham to the airport.

Nekaifes invoked his constitutional right to legal representation of his own choosing and the right to remain silent, when he was called in by the Impeachment Committee to testify yesterday morning.

Other law enforcement officers also invoked their Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights.

Assistant attorney general Gil Birnbrich told the Impeachment Committee yesterday afternoon that he and Buckingham talked over the phone about the penal summons that OPA was trying to serve the AG in the afternoon of Aug. 3, the same day Buckingham and Fitial signed a no-bid $190.8-million, 25-year power purchase agreement that is also a subject of the impeachment.

Birnbrich said Buckingham told him OPA personnel were at his apartment, trying to serve him a penal summons. He said the former AG told him he's not letting them in at the apartment.

The assistant AG said he contacted OPA legal counsel George Hasselback and was able to confirm that OPA was trying to serve a penal summons to Buckingham in connection with a gathering at the governor's house and award of an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) contract.

Birnbrich also told the committee that no one from the Office of the Attorney General accepted the penal summons.

Rep. Joe Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan), chairman of the Impeachment Committee, said based on Birnbrich's testimony, Buckingham stated he did not wish to accept the penal summons.

"I wonder if - can anybody do that? Can I, as an ordinary citizen, refuse to accept a penal summons issued by the court? I don't know if you asked him, what's the basis for his refusal? Do you know?" Deleon Guerrero asked Birnbrich.

Birnbrich said he didn't ask.

He, however, said it may have been related to the "adverse relations" between the attorney general and Public Auditor Mike Pai. But Birnbrich said he was only speculating about this, as he didn't ask Buckingham.

Deleon Guerrero said Buckingham, as "somebody who is responsible for enforcing the law, the top law enforcement officer of the Commonwealth, knew what was being served yet he admitted to refusing to accept it."

'Avoiding the media'

Ports Police Capt. John Rebuenog, one of the law enforcers who provided escort to Buckingham and his wife Pam at the airport, told the Impeachment Committee yesterday that he was told by DPS deputy commissioner Ambrosio Ogumoro that Buckingham "does not want to be bothered by the media" so he was given escorts.

Rebuenog said it wasn't unusual for police and ports police officers to provide escorts to VIPs, including carrying their luggage.

Rep. Fred Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) asked Rebuenog whether he knows if the governor was "directly involved" with the issue at the airport.

Rebuenog said he's not aware of this.

Denials

CPA Ports Police chief Jordan Kosam was also called to testify.

The Special Committee read to Kosam a written supplemental report from OPA stating that Kosam told Capt. Joseph Palacios over the phone that, "no summons to be served to attorney general Ed Buckingham and to take that summons and throw it in the trash can and he is on his way to the airport."

Kosam denied saying this.

Kosam also initially said he wasn't aware of the penal summons to be served to Buckingham. Later on he said he had concerns about the penal summons, particularly OPA's authority and jurisdiction.

He told the committee that he told another officer to serve the summons to Buckingham if he feels like it but he said he communicated that he will feel more comfortable if OPA is the one to serve the summons to Buckingham.

No internal investigation

DPS acting commissioner Aniceto Ogumoro, in his testimony, told the Impeachment Committee he wasn't at the airport around the time the Buckinghams were escorted.

A report received by the Committee mentioned that Aniceto Ogumoro was at the airport although it may be for a different matter.

Aniceto Ogumoro said he only learned about the incident involving the Buckinghams at the airport from the media.

Rep. Ray Tebuteb (R-Saipan) and Rep. Tony Sablan (R-Saipan) asked him why this is so, when they believe an acting commissioner as the top official at DPS should be aware of major incidents involving his men.

When asked by committee members whether he initiated an internal investigation upon learning about the incident, he said no.

But a Senate committee later asked DPS and CPA to conduct internal investigations.

Atty. Robert Torres, counsel for CPA, said he's aware that CPA is conducting an ongoing investigation of the incident but this has not been completed yet.

Testimony from OPA investigators on Monday linked the governor to the airport incident. They also said DPS deputy commissioner Ambrosio Ogumoro instructed DPS police officers not to assist OPA investigators in serving a penal summons against Buckingham and that Ogumoro also allegedly threatened to have OPA investigator Juanette David-Atalig arrested by DPS if she insists on serving the penal summons.

A DPS police officer also told OPA that he believes Ogumoro "was giving all this instruction because it may be that the Buckinghams have already informed the governor and that there instructions were coming from the top."

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