Gov. Benigno R. Fitial's alleged commission of felony, corruption, and neglect of duty are not the only one under the microscope in the first ever impeachment hearings in the CNMI. The process is also laying bare many of the weaknesses and flaws in the way the CNMI government runs-from the lack of cooperation among law enforcement agencies to non-compliance with procurement rules, a missing prison logbook, and non-functioning prison surveillance cameras.
Department of Public Safety deputy commissioner Ambrosio Ogumoro also lashed out at the Special Committee on Impeachment on Friday, saying, “I know we're wasting government time here.”
He went on to invoke his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent “so as not to incriminate myself.”
Ogumoro has been identified by witnesses at the impeachment hearings as the highest CNMI government official who told DPS police officers to back off from helping Office of the Public Auditor investigators serve a penal summons on former attorney general Edward Buckingham.
That order allegedly came from Ogumoro down to the DPS central office and to police officers in the field, including those who initially waited at the Aquarius Beach Tower where Buckingham and his wife were staying, to help OPA investigators serve the penal summons.
The committee is conducting hearings in connection with a resolution impeaching the governor for 16 allegations of corruption, neglect of duty, and felony.
Police officers and OPA investigators who testified for days last week told the panel that DPS has always helped OPA serve penal summons-except on Aug. 3 and 4 when one was to be served on Buckingham.
Based on witnesses' testimony, Buckingham-as then the highest law enforcement officer of the CNMI-knew OPA was trying to serve him the penal summons but he avoided the service to the extent that he asked DPS officers such as Ambrosio Ogumoro and Police Capt. Jermaine Nekaifes to escort him to the airport.
The penal summons was in connection with criminal cases OPA filed against Buckingham on almost the same issues Fitial is being accused of.
These involve Buckingham's dramatic departure from the CNMI using armed police and ports police escorts, the temporary release of a federal inmate from prison to give the governor a massage, the former AG's hosting of a “meet-and-greet” for a political candidate, the sole-source award of a $392,406 ARRA management contract to a former Commerce secretary within days of his resigning, and a no-bid $190.8 million power purchase agreement with Saipan Development LLC, among other issues.
An FBI agent successfully served the summons on Buckingham after OPA sought the FBI's help when it couldn't get the cooperation of DPS and the Commonwealth Ports Authority's Ports Police.
Failure to serve
While the Impeachment Committee has not heard from any of the witnesses so far that Fitial “directly ordered” Ogumoro and Nekaifes to prevent any penal summons from being served on Buckingham, some members said the “airport incident” shows how police and ports police officers disobeyed the laws they are supposed to uphold-such as serving penal summons instead of helping an individual avoid being served.
Rep. Joe Deleon Guerrero (R-Saipan), chairman of the Impeachment Committee, said it's premature to say whether the panel is now about ready to recommend the governor's impeachment to the full House of Representatives because the hearings will continue until Tuesday and if need be, until Wednesday.
Press secretary Angel Demapan said last week that the Fitial administration reserves commenting “at this time” because of the ongoing proceedings at the House.
“The governor will make comments at the appropriate time,” Demapan told Saipan Tribune.
Rep. Ray Tebuteb (R-Saipan), during Friday's hearing, asked DPS Capt. Jermaine Nekaifes to read a section of the Commonwealth Code pertaining to warrants and arrest. Nekaifes is the DPS police officer assigned as security aide/driver to the governor.
Subsection (a) reads, “All process in any criminal proceeding. issued in accordance with law and the rules of procedure prescribe in accordance with law, shall be obligatory upon all police officers having knowledge of it, and any police officer to whom the process is given shall promptly make diligent effort to execute or serve it either personally or through another police officer.”
Tebuteb also asked successive questions whether Nekaifes was “instructed,” “demanded,” “coerced” or “forced” to shield Buckingham from being served a legal or court document. Nekaifes invoked his Fifth Amendment right.
“On the advice of my lawyer, I again respectfully assert my constitutional rights to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution and also under Article I Section 4(c) of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands,” Nekaifes said, reading from a prepared response.
There were only a few questions that Nekaifes responded to without invoking his Fifth Amendment right. Nekaifes was with his counsel, Brien Sers Nicolas.
One of those questions was from Rep. Frank Dela Cruz (R-Saipan), whether Nekaifes picked up Buckingham and his wife from Aquarius Beach Tower.
“Yes,” Nekaifes said.
Dela Cruz later asked about the relationship between Nekaifes and Buckingham.
Nekaifes said, “He's a friend.”
Dela Cruz also asked whether Buckingham asked him over the phone if he can pick them up at the Aquarius Beach Tower, to which Nekaifes answered, “Yes, sir.”
The Special Committee showed a KSPN 2 video clip of the events that happened at the airport in the morning of Aug. 4, showing Nekaifes and Ogumoro escorting the Buckinghams at the airport and police officers blocking KSPN 2 reporter Tina Sablan from interviewing Buckingham or going near him.
Ambrosio Ogumoro also invoked his Fifth Amendment right on Friday.
“Good morning. I know we're wasting government time here but first of all with all due respect Mr. chairman and the committee, I am invoking my right under the Fifth Amendment. Thank you,” he said.
He also handed a written statement to the committee stating, “I'm invoking my right under the Fifth Amendment so as not to incriminate myself.”
Missing prison log book
The committee also learned from witnesses during discussions on the articles of impeachment related to the release of a federal inmate to massage the governor that the Department of Corrections was “missing” its “log book for booking.”
Corrections Commissioner Ray Mafnas, in documents submitted to the committee, said the logbook “cannot be located.”
The committee also subpoenaed all surveillance videos for the date the federal inmate, Qing Mei Cheng, was released from prison to massage the governor.
DOC's report said its recording devices “are not operational” and “therefore, no surveillance videos are found or available.”
DOC also presented to the panel the names and hourly salaries of DOC personnel and resources involved in the “inmate release” incident.
These include then DOC commissioner Dolores M. Aldan who was paid $25.96 an hour; Capt. Georgia M. Cabrera, $14.54 an hour; Sgt. Arnold K. Seman, $16.03 an hour; and COI Abigail M. Borja, $8 an hour.
The CRV vehicle log's mileage for the transport of the inmate from DOC to Fitial's private residence in Gualo Rai was 62692 to 69703. The mileage for the other vehicle used, a Ford Explorer, was not recorded.
Glen Hunter, who addressed the committee on Monday as part of the “public comment,” said he believes there's any justifiable reason at all “why a federal prisoner should ever be removed from custody at 3 in the morning and brought to anyone's house, let alone the house of the governor and left alone in private with him.”
Hunter said besides the misuse of public resources, the issue of the federal inmate release raises many concerns.
He asked whether the prisoner, a Chinese national, was threatened or coerced in any way when she was removed from her prison cell, or whether there was exchange of information, exchange of money, or whether the case was being contaminated.
“What we're talking about is a federal prisoner taken by a local leader into a private meeting without her lawyer and any federal representative,” Hunter added.
Hunter also asked committee members to be mindful of the “humanitarian” concern in this issue that might be overlooked.
He spoke of a woman in custody, roused from her sleep, transported by armed corrections guards and brought “into the bedroom of a man in power at 3 in the morning.”
“The doors were shut with him inside. And as he publicly stated she physically touched him. That's all actual information we have all been given from this incident.” he said, referring to Fitial's own statement that she massaged him.
Fitial at the time said he was in great pain and Qing Mei Cheng was his best massage therapist/masseuse and he didn't know she was in prison in connection with an immigration case.
Hunter said some people might say the prisoner never complained anyway, so why be concerned about this.
“This is gross abuse of power by a public official. No consequence he suffered that followed. Just that happening that strikes more fear in this powerful people.so nobody will come forward,” he added.
The impeachment proceedings are being carried live over Channel 60. Hunter is also posting videos of the impeachment proceedings on Facebook.