TINIAN—Joey Patrick San Nicolas made history Friday when he became the first attorney general from Tinian. He will also be the last “appointed” AG in CNMI history as voters are scheduled to “elect”-for the first time-their highest law enforcement officer in November 2014.
San Nicolas assumes his new post at a time when the Office of the Attorney General is mired in controversy over criminal charges and other concerns against former attorney general Edward Buckingham, a high turnover rate of government attorneys, and lawmakers' continuing plans to impeach the governor, among other things.
San Nicolas said he's aware of the “mountain of challenges” and vowed to restore trust and confidence in the OAG.
Senate Vice President Jude Hofschneider (R-Tinian) said the Senate is “confident that Attorney General San Nicolas will lead the office in the right direction in the midst of all the recent publicity the office had the past few months.”
“He's got a lot of work ahead of him but he's the right choice,” Hofschneider told Saipan Tribune.
By a vote of 9-0, the Senate confirmed San Nicolas's nomination at a packed Tinian Courthouse at 11:43am on Friday.
Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, who also flew to Tinian Friday morning with first lady Josie Fitial, swore in San Nicolas afterwards. They had to wait, however, for some six minutes to find a Bible where San Nicolas will rest his left hand while taking his oath of office.
Others in the packed courthouse offered their electronic gadgets for an e-Bible or a Bible App on their cellular phone, but San Nicolas and his family waited for the actual book.
At noon, San Nicolas was sworn in, witnessed by all nine senators led by outgoing Senate President Paul Manglona (Ind-Rota), Tinian Mayor Ramon Dela Cruz and other island officials, acting AG Viola Alepuyo, chief prosecutor Peter Prestley, press secretary Angel Demapan, acting Public Lands secretary Ray Salas, management and budget adviser Vicky Villagomez, San Nicolas' relatives, and other members of the community.
Holding the Bible was his wife Vilma and their children beside them. The crowd applauded when the swearing in was over.
The crowd was later invited to a lunch reception at Taga Beach.
Fitial said he's happy and pleased that his nominee was confirmed. “He's not only intelligent, also very well mannered. I think he will do a very god job,” the governor told reporters at the courthouse.
The scheduled 10am Senate session didn't begin until 11:35am, mainly because of delayed flights from Saipan.
Other officials also had to attend two other major events happening simultaneously on Tinian on Friday-the U.S. Military Contracting Forum II, and the Association of Mariana Islands' Mayors, Vice Mayors and Elected Municipal Council Members' 19th General Assembly, both at Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino.
At the session, Sen. Frank Cruz (R-Tinian), chairman of the Senate Committee on Executive Appointments and Government Investigations, urged his colleagues to adopt EAGI's Standing Committee Report 17-90, recommending San Nicolas' confirmation.
Cruz said the panel is “convinced beyond a doubt” that San Nicolas possesses the qualification and leadership skills necessary to serve as CNMI attorney general based on a review of his credentials and oral and written testimony.
San Nicolas submitted the required documents, except the results of his drug test. As standard condition, if any confirmed nominee's drug test comes back positive, the Senate will automatically withdraw the confirmation.
Cruz also said that the EAGI Committee has “carefully addressed the attorney general's residency and domiciliary requirements as it pertains to the appointment of Mr. San Nicolas.”
The NMI Constitution provides that the attorney general shall be a resident and a domiciliary of the CNMI “for at least three years immediately preceding the date on which the attorney general is confirmed.”
Cruz referred to a Senate legal opinion that states San Nicolas “meets the residency and domiciliary requirement pursuant to Article III Section 11 of the NMI Constitution” because the nominee “did not abandon Tinian as his domiciliary and he returned to Tinian after a short employment on Guam.”
San Nicolas worked as assistant attorney general at the Guam Attorney General's Office from February 2011 to January 2012. He came back to the CNMI and worked as staff attorney at the Commonwealth Ports Authority.
San Nicolas's predecessor, Buckingham, has been declared a fugitive from justice within days after departing the CNMI in the early morning of Aug. 4 despite a penal summons to appear in court two days later, in connection with 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.
Buckingham's criminal cases and the governor's inability to remove his AG were among the factors in a movement to impeach the governor. But because the House leadership was aligned with the governor, the minority bloc's impeachment resolution was defeated.
With almost all the governor's House candidates wiped out during the Nov. 6 midterm elections, the new House majority will re-introduce in January 2013 the impeachment resolution with 16 “yes” votes expected. Only at least 14 “yes” votes in the House are needed to impeach a sitting governor, and six “yes” votes in the Senate to convict.
Other Senate matters
By a vote of 9-0, the Senate also confirmed Friday the governor's appointment of former speaker Herman R. Deleon Guerrero to serve on the Civil Service Commission.
It was the first time in a long time that all nine senators were present during a session.
The Senate also adopted a resolution honoring the late Ruth L. Tighe, who passed away in October after a long and courageous fight with lung disease. Tighe was a librarian, columnist/writer, educator, environmentalist, and to many, an “exceptional citizen.”