CNMI Senators Ready To Confirm New Attorney General
By Haidee V. Eugenio
SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Nov. 15, 2012) – Senators are poised to confirm Gov. Benigno R. Fitial's nomination of Joey Patrick San Nicolas as Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands attorney general during Friday's session on Tinian, following yesterday's public hearing on his nomination. All oral and written testimonies favored his confirmation, citing his qualification, good work ethic, dedication to serve the CNMI, and his pledge to restore public trust and confidence in the Office of the Attorney General (OAG).
San Nicolas reiterated that before accepting the nomination, he was aware that the OAG "has been mired in controversy" and has a "mountain of challenges."
The first from Tinian to be nominated attorney general, San Nicolas also said that given the chance to become the highest legal officer in the CNMI, the OAG will "prosecute those who have violated the law."
He said with the support of the attorneys and staff at the OAG, the Executive Branch, the Legislature and the community, the OAG will be able to better serve the people.
Sen. Jovita Taimanao (Ind-Rota) was one of only two senators who asked San Nicolas questions during the public hearing, focusing on San Nicolas' plan to restore trust and confidence in the OAG.
"I will come in and make sure all who work on behalf of the people at the Attorney General's Office [will abide] by those rules. That is laid out in the Constitution-provide sound legal advice for the governor and for agencies, represent to the best of our abilities the Commonwealth, defend our Constitution and pursue and prosecute those who have violated the law," San Nicolas told the Senate Committee on Executive Appointment and Government Investigation (EAGI) that held the public hearing.
Taimanao's question stemmed from the controversies surrounding former attorney general Edward T. Buckingham, now a fugitive from justice.
Buckingham allegedly used law enforcement officers to help shield him-unsuccessfully-from being served a penal summons for criminal charges filed against him. The charges included alleged violation of local and federal election law. A day before leaving the CNMI, Buckingham signed a no-bid $190.8-million diesel power purchase agreement that is now also a subject of a lawsuit.
If and when confirmed by the Senate, San Nicolas will be attorney general at least until voters elect for the first time an AG in November 2014 as a result of a recent CNMI constitutional amendment.
San Nicolas is currently a staff attorney at the Commonwealth Ports Authority (CPA).
Sen. Frank Cruz (R-Tinian), chairman of the Senate EAGI Committee, asked San Nicolas as to the status of the Senate panel's letters to CPA asking for an internal investigation into the Aug. 3 and 4 airport incident surrounding Buckingham's departure from the CNMI. A similar letter was sent to the Department of Public Safety (DPS).
The panel wants an investigation into alleged misuse or abuse of government property and personnel, and other violations related to the use of armed police and ports police officers to allegedly prevent the serving of a penal summons on Buckingham.
Cruz also asked whether San Nicolas, when confirmed AG, will look into a separate letter that the Senate EAGI panel sent to the OAG, also related to the Buckingham-airport incident.
San Nicolas told Cruz during the public hearing that CPA has been investigating the allegations.
"I believe that a report is forthcoming and that report can only be transmitted to your office with the consent of the executive director along with the board of directors [of CPA]," San Nicolas said.
CPA executive director Ed Deleon Guerrero earlier told the media that CPA ports police did not violate any law related to the Buckingham-airport incident.
As for the request for the OAG to investigate the matter, San Nicolas said, "There will be a response, there will be action taken, we will pursue, we will investigate and make a determination whether formal charges will be filed, not against any particular person.but anybody who is investigated by the Office of the Attorney General."
He reiterated that the OAG "will prosecute those who have violated the law.based on investigations conducted within our office and information provided from the OPA [Office of the Public Auditor], DPS, or from other agencies.When we make that determination that this person, this individual has violated the law, we will do what is required under the Constitution, which is to prosecute. That is our job, that is my duty and I will not hesitate."
Cruz, in an interview after the public hearing, said a legal opinion by Senate counsel Jose A. Bermudes states that San Nicolas meets the constitutional residency and domiciliary requirements, a concern raised as soon as the governor announced his nomination in October.
"Attorney Joey Patrick San Nicolas did not abandon Tinian as his domiciliary and he returned to Tinian after a short employment on Guam," states the Nov. 9 Senate legal opinion, a copy of which was provided by the EAGI panel yesterday.
The NMI Constitution requires the AG to be a resident and domiciliary of the CNMI "for at least three years immediately preceding the date on which the attorney general is confirmed."
San Nicolas worked as assistant attorney general for the Guam Attorney General's Office from February 2011 to January 2012. He then returned to Saipan and worked as staff attorney at CPA.
None of those who testified during the hearing and those who submitted written testimony raised the residency issue.
Among those who testified in favor of San Nicolas' confirmation were private and government attorneys in Guam and the CNMI, including acting AG Viola Alepuyo, Guam assistant attorney general Jonathan Quan, attorneys Janet King, Ray Quichocho, Robert Torres, and Rosemond Santos, Tinian Mayor Ramon Dela Cruz, and Mary Ann Calvo.
Cruz and Senate Vice President Jude Hofschneider (R-Tinian) also read the names of at least 10 individuals who submitted letters supporting San Nicolas' confirmation.
The Senate chamber and lobby were filled with San Nicolas' family, relatives, colleagues, friends, and other community members.
"I'm very happy, I'm very grateful for my family to come out here from Tinian, my friends [from CNMI and Guam] coming out here," San Nicolas told reporters after the hearing. "I'm very humbled by their presence and the opportunity to appear before the Senate Committee on Executive Appointments chaired by Sen. Frank Cruz."
As to the election of an AG in November 2014 and whether he would like his name to be on the ballot by then, San Nicolas said this is something he does not have an answer for at this time because his priority is to become AG when confirmed by the Senate.
The nominee's relative, Sen. Henry San Nicolas (Cov-Tinian), told the committee, "JP is the right man right now." Other EAGI Committee members also expressed support for the nomination.
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