Gov. Benigno R. Fitial nominated yesterday Commonwealth Ports Authority legal counsel Joey Patrick San Nicolas to serve as CNMI attorney general, advising him to “follow the law,” more than two months since the controversial departure from the CNMI of former AG Edward T. Buckingham.
San Nicolas is the first attorney from Tinian to be nominated AG by any governor, said Senate Vice President Jude Hofschneider (R-Tinian), one of those who attended the announcement ceremony yesterday afternoon on Capital Hill.
San Nicolas' appointment requires the advice and consent of the Senate.
He said he is humbled and honored by the nomination.
Fitial said he asked San Nicolas to serve as AG in “just a matter of days after Buckingham left and decided not to come back.”
San Nicolas said he asked the governor to give him time to think about the appointment and consult with his family and friends, considering the weight of the responsibilities of being the CNMI's attorney general.
“I understand what's been going on here and I know that there are decisions that must be made, issues that must be faced. I made a decision last week after consulting with close friends and family,” he said.
While San Nicolas was still considering the nomination, Fitial and Lt. Gov. Eloy Inos appointed Viola Alepuyo to serve in an acting capacity. Alepuyo will remain an assistant attorney general if and when the Senate confirms San Nicolas' nomination.
The governor signed San Nicolas' appointment letter in front of the crowd in the governor's main conference room during a 16-minute news briefing yesterday afternoon.
Fitial said he expects the Tinian Legislative Delegation to support San Nicolas' nomination.
If confirmed by the Senate, San Nicolas said he will continue Alepuyo's work, including boosting the morale of assistant attorneys general and staff. He also complimented the quality of the lawyers and staff at the OAG.
“I will say this. I will listen to you. I will respect you, respect your opinions, and I will cooperate with you as we work together, moving forward for the people,” San Nicolas said, addressing the OAG attorneys and staff.
During a question-and-answer with reporters, San Nicolas said he will leave it up to people to decide on the elected AG initiative that will be on the ballot in the Nov. 6 elections.
On another question about a Senate panel's request to the OAG to investigate the Buckingham “escort” incident in August, San Nicolas said he believes this and other requests will be investigated.
“I think it is important that we take every request for an investigation seriously and if given the opportunity, if confirmed by the Senate, there will be no exemption. Every investigation will be followed and whether it warrants prosecution or not, the determination would be made based on the facts,” San Nicolas said.
Buckingham was escorted by police and ports police officers as he was leaving the CNMI, allegedly to shield him from being served a penal summons in connection with criminal charges against him. A now dissolved Special Committee on Impeachment held hearings to shed light on the issue.
San Nicolas said OAG attorneys are guided by the rule of law, whether it be statutes, or the CNMI Constitution or the U.S. Constitution.
This early, San Nicolas' appointment is raising some concerns.
Article 3, Section 11 of the CNMI Constitution states that “The attorney general shall be a resident and a domiciliary of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands for at least three years immediately preceding the date on which the attorney general is confirmed.”
Prior to becoming legal counsel for the Commonwealth Ports Authority, San Nicolas was an assistant attorney general at the Guam Attorney General's Office.
As of last night, it was not clear when San Nicolas left the Guam AGO. San Nicolas and the administration has yet to provide a copy of the AG nominee's resume.
Sen. Henry San Nicolas (Cov-Saipan), one of those present at the news briefing yesterday, said he believes the nominee “can do the job” of an attorney general for the CNMI. They are first cousins.
The Senate vice president said the Tinian community is “very proud” of San Nicolas' nomination. Just like Sen. San Nicolas, Hofschneider said the Senate looks forward to working with the nominee.
Also present at yesterday's announcement were assistant attorneys general and staff at the CNMI Office of the Attorney General, the nominee's family and relatives, friends, and other government officials.