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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center

With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i


CNMI Governor’s Approval Needed To Extradite Former AG
OPA counsel appointed as special prosecutor for case

By Emmanuel T. Erediano

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Dec. 19, 2012) – Northern Mariana Islands Attorney General Joey Patrick San Nicolas may have designated Office of Public Auditor legal counsel George Hasselback as special prosecutor in the case involving Edward T. Buckingham, but extraditing the former AG still requires the approval of his former boss, Gov. Benigno R. Fitial.

Hasselback, who accepted the assignment with Public Auditor Mike Pai’s concurrence, told KSPN 2 last night: "Ultimately, the final authority to formalize the extradition is the governor. That is just the way the statute is set up."

San Nicolas authorized Hasselback to "determine whether the interests of justice requires" Buckingham’s extradition.

The former AG has been declared a fugitive from justice by the Superior Court which also issued a $50,000 bench warrant for Buckingham.

In his letter to Hasselback, San Nicolas said: "I have chosen to place this trust in you, because I believe that you will appreciate the degree of confidence that I have in your ability to handle this matter professionally and prudently."

San Nicolas also asked Hasselback to send Fitial the recommendation for Buckingham’s extradition. He asked the OPA legal counsel to submit an analysis and recommendation to the governor no later than Jan. 10, 2013.

Buckingham left the island on Aug. 4 under police escort. At the airport, he was quoted by an OPA investigator as saying, "I am under direct orders to make sure that I get on that flight."

It was Hasselback who charged Buckingham with two counts of misconduct in public office and two counts of CNMI Ethics Act and election law violations. After Buckingham’s hasty departure on Aug. 4, Hasselback submitted an amended complaint that included one count of obstructing justice for interference with service of process, and misconduct in public office.

Incoming Speaker Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero commended San Nicolas for designating a special prosecutor in the case against Buckingham.

However, Deleon Guerrero said he can only hope that the governor will accept the special prosecutor’s recommendation to extradite Buckingham.

"I now encourage the governor to sign off on it. I hope he does," Deleon Guerrero added.

Senate Floor Leader Pete P. Reyes was also happy to hear the "good news."

"The AG is now showing that he is committed to bringing the case to justice and in the process restoring public confidence in the Attorney General’s Office," Reyes said.

Conflict of interest

In his letter to Hasselback, San Nicolas said he has determined that there are potential conflicts of interest that would prohibit him, the AG, from performing his statutory duties without risking the violation of applicable ethical rules that govern the practice of attorneys in the CNMI.

San Nicolas noted that the AGO’s civil division chief, Gilbert Birnbrich, previously represented Buckingham in the case.

The AG said he has not been able to determine that any steps were taken to prevent the imputation of a conflict to the entire AGO, so he is "unwilling to permit my office or any of the attorneys who work for my office, to represent any party whose interests are potentially adverse to Buckingham in his criminal case."

He added, "Considering the difficulty in determining how pervasive this conflict is within the [AGO], I am unwilling to seek waiver of the conflict from Buckingham and risk the commonwealth’s ability to properly prosecute the charges brought in Criminal Case No. 12-0134B," he said referring to the charges against the former AG.

San Nicolas said he had also represented the Commonwealth Ports Authority so it would be inappropriate if he becomes involved in the criminal trial of Buckingham which will likely involve CPA employees’ testimony as well. CPA police officers were among those who escorted the former AG to the airport on Aug. 4.

"I cannot, with any accuracy, predict the exact nature of the conflicts that could potentially develop because of my former representation of CPA," San Nicolas said. "Again, however, I am not willing to risk the commonwealth’s ability to properly prosecute the charges in the Criminal Case No. 12-0134B by ignoring the potential for such conflicts to arise."

Public trust

San Nicolas also told Hasselback that during the confirmation hearing on Tinian for his appointment as AG, he made it his top priority to restore public trust in the AGO. He said he pledged transparency and professionalism.

"The mere possibility of perceived conflicts of interest in the operation of the [AGO] while under my leadership (let alone a manifestation of an actual conflict) would undermine my goal to re-establish public trust in the [AGO]. I cannot tolerate this. I must take steps to eliminate any possibility of conflict in every aspect of the prosecution of Criminal Case No. 12-0134B so that both Buckingham’s rights are protected and the commonwealth’s interest in seeing its laws enforced is preserved," San Nicolas said.

In a telephone interview last night, Press Secretary Angel A. Demapan said the AG had left for Guam to meet with U.S. Attorney Alicia Limtiaco, but he had no other information about it.

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