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CNMI AG’s Office Disqualified From Prosecuting Buckingham
Judge says ‘conflict of interest’ in case against former AG

By Ferdie de la Torre

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 18, 2013) – Superior Court Associate Judge David A. Wiseman has ruled that the Northern Marianas’ Office of the Attorney General is disqualified from prosecuting both former AG Edward T. Buckingham and his suspected co-conspirators.

In a decision he issued on Aug. 17, 2012 but unsealed only on Wednesday, Wiseman granted an ex parte petition of the Office of the Public Auditor (OPA) appointing OPA counsel George Hasselback as special prosecutor in the criminal case against Buckingham.

Ex parte refers to an application to the court by one of the parties to the case without the other party being present or heard.

"The appointment of a special prosecutor is necessary to ensure the fair administration of justice," said Wiseman, adding that the scope of Hasselback's duties as special prosecutor shall be limited to the investigation and prosecution of matters or persons that are connected or relevant to the charges filed in this case.

Wiseman said OPA has statutory authority to initiate a criminal prosecution against the AG and the governor.

The judge determined that the court has the inherent power to appoint a special prosecutor when the Office of the Attorney General is disqualified because of a conflict of interest or by some other means.

He said the OAG is disqualified to prosecute the case against Buckingham due to a conflict of interest based on a personal, professional, and prior attorney-client relationship with former AG Buckingham.

Buckingham, Wiseman noted, was the AG for three years at the time the charges were filed; therefore, he has a personal and professional relationship with the regular prosecutors in the OAG.

Furthermore, the judge said, the OAG, through Civil Division chief Gil Birnbrich, represented Buckingham at the first hearing in this case held on Aug. 6, 2012.

Wiseman also determined that OAG's conflict of interest spreads to the police officers and/or public officials implicated in the alleged conspiracy surrounding Buckingham.

Wiseman said the tight connection among Buckingham, the OAG, and the suspected co-conspirators hinders the OAG's ability to conduct a through and impartial investigation of possible co-conspirators in this case.

Moreover, Wiseman said, there is a strong likelihood that the OAG's prosecution of Buckingham's co-conspirators would necessarily be harmful to Buckingham, which would violate the duty of loyalty owed to a former client.

The judge said Hasselback asserts that the OPA's ongoing investigation has revealed strong evidence that certain police officers and/or public officials unlawfully aided Buckingham in attempting to avoid service of summons process.

Last week, Hasselback submitted his recommendation to Gov. Benigno R. Fitial for the extradition of Buckingham to face the criminal charges filed against him.

In a letter to Fitial, Hasselback said without a warrant from the governor for Buckingham's extradition, the case against the former attorney general cannot proceed and the "ends of justice would be frustrated as the Commonwealth's interest in seeing its laws upheld would be thwarted."

Attorney Brien Sers Nicholas, counsel for Buckingham, recently filed in Superior Court an ex parte request for a status conference in his criminal case.

Nicholas asked the court to set dates for Buckingham's arraignment, for the hearing of his pretrial motions, and for his trial, if one should have become necessary.

Wiseman recently denied defendant's request.

An FBI special agent reportedly served Buckingham with the penal summons at the Saipan international airport shortly after he and his wife left Saipan at 6am Delta flight to Narita, Japan on Aug. 4, 2012.

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