Today is Attorney General Edward T. Buckingham's last work day as the CNMI's chief legal counsel and looking back to the three years he held the post, he said he has no apologies for his decisions to expect staff at the Office of the Attorney General to perform their job.
For some who didn't live up to his expectations, that may have meant termination from the office.
At the same time, Buckingham said he has never seen any indication of criminal conduct on the part of Gov. Benigno R. Fitial.
“Here's where I draw the line. If we see any indication of criminal behavior, uh-oh, that's not okay. I have not seen, ever, an indication of criminal conduct, period, on the part of the governor,” he said.
The governor, along with the attorney general, has been accused more than once of violating laws and rules relating to sole-source contracts and ethics, among other things.
During Buckingham's tenure as AG, several assistant attorneys general left the office.
“I expect our lawyers to work in this office and I don't expect them to get rich. I expect them to serve the Commonwealth. One of the reasons you saw me push so hard on this issue of attorneys' fees for the Retirement Fund-I think it's wrong for attorneys to come in here and bill thousands and thousands of hours and get nearly $750,000 bucks for the kind of work that they didn't do. You know, if you re going to serve the Commonwealth, I expect you to serve the Commonwealth well. And I have no apologies for what I have done in terms of expecting people to perform and nope, I won't talk about specific cases,” he said.
He will be going back to the U.S. mainland to be able to spend more time with his wife of 37 years, Pam, along with their only son and his family.
Buckingham remembers too well that some three years ago before he became the AG, the office was “getting sanctioned all the time for not appearing in court” and lost a $233-million Retirement Fund case because the OAG “didn't file an answer.”
He said there were “tremendous problems” in the office in terms of performance, and he helped fix these problems.
Prior to becoming AG, he spent three years each with the OAG's Civil and Criminal divisions.
Here are some other excerpts from the interview with Buckingham:
Media: For the last three years, have you had ill feeling toward people who have accused you of wrongdoing while in office? (At this point, Buckingham's mobile phone rang, and it was the “governor” on the other line).
Buckingham: Do I have ill feelings? Look, this is a high-profile job and I've been around long enough. But when I took this job, I took an oath to do it the best I could. And that means that I would make decision and I believe have made decisions that I consider appropriate and proper. Do I expect everyone to agree with every decision?
Absolutely not. I think I've been very open.
Let's take the first one you mentioned, the election.
[Editor's note: Fitial invited Buckingham and his wife to dinner at his house weeks before the 2010 elections. The governor later on also asked Buckingham to “bring your office.” Days later, the governor decided to include Joseph Camacho, then the governor's candidate for CNMI delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives but he lost the race to incumbent Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan (Ind-MP). Fitial later on appointed Camacho to the Superior Court.]
That's the governor's house. Now I could have canceled the dinner, okay? And someone said I should have done that. Fair enough, I respect that opinion. I made the decision out of respect to the governor, not to do that.
I also was very clear that I never endorse anybody. I paid for everything personally and so people can have their opinions and I respect that. I also immediately afterward said, 'hey I will recuse myself from the election because I said there are some perceptions out there.' So I think I approached that one openly, fairly, honestly.
Media: What about the government's award of a sole-source, almost $400,000 ARRA management contract to former Commerce secretary Mike Ada, and the Office of the Public Auditor's investigation later on?
Buckingham: Mike Ada was quitting and he wanted to do a new contract with the government. That put the governor into an awkward situation, right? What did the governor do? The governor writes to the Office of the Public Auditor and says 'Mike Ada is asking me to do a contract. Public auditor, you tell me if there's something wrong with this?' Public auditor is silent. Not quite silent. In fact, when the public auditor responded, the public auditor said, 'governor, you make a strong case for sole-source justification.' And the auditor said we don't want to comment on the specifics of the contract, like how much are you going to pay him, the terms of the contract. Well the governor wasn't asking him about that. I looked at some stuff like that, that's legal [matter].
The governor was asking the auditor, ethically. 'Do you see an ethical problem?' And you read the auditor's response and it is silent on the ethics. I looked at that request to the auditor. I looked at the auditor's response. Now I did see ethical issues in it. But frankly, I decided as I've said publicly, the interest of the Commonwealth to make sure we have these grants monitored was such that I felt, legally, it was proper. So I signed off on it, legally.
If they wanted to raise ethical issues, the time to have raised that was when the governor asked them. And the governor had said to the auditor, 'this is like the arsonist who sets the fire, and then goes, gee we have to look at who sets the fire.' They did. Because if the auditor's office had said, 'we see ethical problems,' do you think I would have signed that contract?
I did sign the contract, I approved it. One of the major reasons I approved it was the auditor's office did not raise ethical issues. So again, for me, to have the auditor's office come back the way they did, to me, I stick with what the governor said, that's the arsonist asking for who set the fire. They could have stopped it. Any other controversies you want to ask me about?
Media: What was the OAG's lawsuit against the public auditor's wife and the OAG's concerns about OPA's hiring of legal counsels?
Buckingham: Sure. Now you have to go way back in history, three years ago. When I became AG, one of the things that I saw was the Office of the Public Auditor had requested twice of the Legislature, of the authority to conduct criminal prosecutions. The authority to conduct criminal prosecutions is the authority of the Office of the Attorney General. Public auditor said we wanted to have the opportunity to investigate and to prosecute. Now, has anybody seen Law & Order? In the beginning of it, they say, there are two different actors. The police investigate crimes, and the prosecutors prosecute, right? That's a good statement. The cops investigate, we prosecute. Now what the auditor was proposing is, we got to be a cop role, we want to investigate, and we want to be the prosecutors, too..Now the AG's Office does have the constitutional responsibility and statutory responsibility to prosecute. The Office of the Public Auditor did not and does not.
When I became the AG, I looked at this and what had happened was people who were hired and fired by the auditor were designated special assistant attorneys general. They didn't work for me. They were hired and fired by the auditor. But they were getting criminal cases and they were prosecuting. Now I looked at that and said, that means the auditor is prosecuting these cases. No. The Office of the Attorney General should prosecute the cases. So what I said to the auditor, in writing, was I am withdrawing this designation.
I asked to meet with him afterward and he basically said 'you know I'm upset about this and so I don't want to meet with you' and I said 'okay'.. Stuff always has a beginning point, he didn't like that. Now I stand behind that decision.
But I also looked at the AG's Office. We had a unit with nearly 15 people called AGIU [Attorney General's Investigation Unit]. Remember that? I disbanded that. Why did I disband it? I applied the same rules to me which was, we prosecute, we're not the cops. Our investigative unit was very much acting like cops. Now to me, we shouldn't be doing the cops job.
Media: The elected AG initiative is now with the Commonwealth Election Commission, and it would be on the Nov 6 ballot. What's your view on this?
Buckingham: I'm not running.
Media: Do you think the CNMI is ready for an elected AG?
Buckingham: Personally I'm not in favor of an elected AG. But that's just my personal view. Part of the reason is, people can say, you know the AG should be independent. Okay. What does that mean? If it means, 'well the governor can do his thing, but you know I'm independent of the governor, I can do whatever I want.' So now what? You got two governors in the Commonwealth. In my mind you got one governor, not two governors.
Now Guam went through a pretty rough period of time with an elected AG. The governor and the AG were constantly conflicting. I don't have conflict with the governor. You know I recognize and respect the governor is the head of the Commonwealth, the job of the attorney general is to advise the governor, advise the agencies, represent the Commonwealth the best that we can.
Media: Have the governor and you have different views on different subjects?
Buckingham: The governor and I have, over three years, exchanged views and have vigorous discussions. And I'm not going to get to any of the areas where we disagree. What I can tell you without exception, is here's where I draw the line. I will do everything I can to have our office support the Commonwealth, support the Executive Branch, and support the governor. Here's where I draw the line. If we see any indication of criminal behavior, uh-oh, that's not okay.
I have not seen, ever, an indication of criminal conduct, period, on the part of the governor. Now when we look at issues of course there's going to be different perspectives. And I will give him my advice. But that is advice in terms of deciding, the person who decides on the policy of the Executive Branch is not the AG. The person who decides the policy for the Executive Branch is the governor. I respect that.
Media: How would you like to be remembered as attorney general of the Commonwealth?
Buckingham: Somebody who worked really hard, improved the performance of the office, and expected everybody who works in this office to work hard and contribute. And somebody who never claimed to be perfect and I never have.
Media: After this, would you still be an attorney? Or are you just going to have a vacation as an attorney?
Buckingham: You mean what am I going to do when I grow up?
Buckingham: I retired once already. I retired after my wife and I had careers in Colorado. I'm wired to work. That's what I do. I like working. I kind of need to recharge my batteries. I want to have some time with my wife. If you're saying, do I intend to hang out, play golf? Nah. But exactly what I'll do, I don't know. Let's wait and see.