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Sunday, April 20, 2014

OAG, OPA mend fences

Years of “strained relationship” between the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of the Public Auditor may have finally come to an end not only with the revival of the Attorney General’s Investigative Unit but also as a result of renewed cooperation between the two offices initiated by the new attorney general, Joey Patrick San Nicolas.

Former AG Ed Buckingham, now a fugitive from justice, scrapped the AGIU, a joint effort between OAG and OPA.

On his first week in office, San Nicolas led OAG officials in a meeting Friday afternoon with Public Auditor Michael Pai and OPA legal counsels, including George Hasselback.

San Nicolas said he brought with him to the meeting other officers of the OAG. They included newly appointed deputy attorney general Viola Alepuyo, Civil Division chief Gil Birnbrich, Criminal Division chief Peter Prestley, AGIU chief Ed Cabrera, and victim advocate chief Dixie Inos.

“Just letting them know that this is the leadership of the Attorney General’s Office… and we’re ready to work together on matters that affect both of our offices…. The Attorney General’s Office is the highest law enforcement agency but we work closely with them as far as criminal [case] referrals and also referrals for collections, civil [cases are concerned],” San Nicolas said in an interview at the lighting of a giant Christmas tree and Nativity in Susupe Friday night.

He said he and Alepuyo have been talking about the restoration of the AGIU for about a month now, and that he’s glad to know that when he came in on Monday, AGIU was “reinstituted.”

San Nicolas left Saipan yesterday for a four-day meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Public trust

Sen. Frank Cruz (R-Tinian), chairman of the Senate Committee on Executive Appointments and Government Investigations, was relieved to know that the OAG and OPA are working together again.

“That’s what we asked the new AG to do—to work with other law enforcement agencies so that all critical issues affecting our law enforcement entities will be addressed, so that public trust is restored and the integrity of the departments and their officers are protected,” Cruz told Saipan Tribune yesterday.

San Nicolas himself said during a public hearing on his nomination that he will work to restore public trust and confidence in the OAG if confirmed.

Cruz, a former police office, said “wrongdoings” among law enforcement entities and other government entities must be “eradicated.”

As of last night, OPA’s Pai has yet to respond to media questions about Friday’s meeting with OAG officials.

New beginnings

San Nicolas, the first attorney general from Tinian and expected to be the last appointed AG in CNMI history, acknowledged the “strained” relationship between OAG and OPA.

He said it’s time to “bridge the gap” and “re-establish” joint working relationship between the two agencies.

“I just wanted to have an opportunity to tell Mr. Pai that the Attorney General’s Office is ready to work with them. We do have issues, we have existing, ongoing issues and we both agree that those issues should be resolved and we’re working toward that,” San Nicolas added.

San Nicolas said he’d rather not disclose these priority issues, but that they include the recovery of millions of dollars in public funds.

In previous regular reports, OPA said OAG has been unable to recover, in a six-month period, a single cent out of $6.2 million in taxpayers’ money that were misspent, overpaid to professional service contractors, or unpaid land leases dating as far back as 1995.

During Buckingham’s tenure as AG starting in 2009, OAG and OPA sued and countersued each other for a host of issues.

Among them is OPA’s criminal charges against Buckingham, who left the CNMI on Aug. 4 and a trail of controversies behind him, including signing a day before a sole-source $190.8-million diesel power purchase agreement for 25 years and “avoiding”—albeit unsuccessfully—the service of penal summons.

Buckingham’s use of armed police and ports police officers to allegedly avoid the service of a penal summons and the $190.8-million PPA are among the issues covered in a soon-to-be revived resolution impeaching Gov. Benigno R. Fitial for allegations of corruption, neglect of duty, and felony.

San Nicolas said the Buckingham airport “incident” was not among those discussed on Friday, but he said this does not mean it won’t be discussed by OPA and OAG in the future.

‘First day on the job’

San Nicolas said his first official day as CNMI attorney general on Nov. 19 required him to go to the Saipan International Airport to show support to the Commonwealth Ports Authority and other government entities as they deal with a plane crash.

“I want to say our hearts go out to the family of the deceased and to the injured passengers and their families and everybody who was affected by this tragic incident,” San Nicolas said.

San Nicolas used to be a staff attorney at CPA.

The governor appointed San Nicolas in October but the latter asked that he continue to be with CPA until his nomination is confirmed by the Senate. The Senate confirmed him on Nov. 16, followed immediately by the governor swearing him in.

Florida trip

Days after settling into his new job, San Nicolas left Saipan yesterday to attend the four-day National Association of Attorneys General meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The first two days will be an orientation for new AGs across the United States. The next two days will be for all AGs, newcomers and old timers alike.

San Nicolas said he will be back shortly after the NAAG meeting.

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