Private citizens and individual lawmakers separately said yesterday they will donate funds to help cover the cost of extraditing former attorney general Edward T. Buckingham to the CNMI, but they also expressed disappointment that the administration would cite cost as a factor when it can further cut costs, including Gov. Benigno R. Fitial's off-island trips.
The courts have declared Buckingham a fugitive from justice.
“It should not be a question of cost, but when? We need to bring the former AG here. It's not about how much it would cost, but about doing the right thing,” Sen. Ralph Torres (R-Saipan) told Saipan Tribune yesterday.
Torres said he will personally donate money to the cause, and he said the idea was brought up by Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP).
Glen Hunter, a private citizen advocating for a transparent and corruption-free government, said it is rather “disturbing” that the Office of the Attorney General and the administration would delay responding to the good faith offer by the U.S. Department of Justice to help bring Buckingham back to the CNMI to stand trial.
“While I understand that times are tough, money should never be a legitimate excuse for violating the law nor should it be an excuse for not properly enforcing the law. The fact that no immediate response from the OAG to DoJ was made to officially enlist their support speaks volumes as to where they stand on the issue,” Hunter said.
Senate floor leader Pete Reyes (IR-Saipan) also said he will contribute money to the cause, adding that he discussed the idea before he and two other lawmakers formally asked Attorney General Joey Patrick San Nicolas on Wednesday to write a letter to U.S. Attorney Alicia Limtiaco, which is necessary to initiate the extradition.
Some lawmakers said the cost of restoring public trust and confidence not only in the OAG but the government as a whole outweighs the dollar amount.
“I always believe that people are innocent until proven guilty. In the case of Buckingham, the courts already declared him a fugitive. Bringing him back here should be a priority regardless of the cost. We can calculate the cost by estimating the airfare, the use of Corrections. It's not going to be that much,” Torres said.
Former lieutenant governor and speaker Diego Benavente, in a separate interview, said he will chip in as much as he can to help bring Buckingham back to face the charges but he's disappointed that the administration is citing cost as a major consideration.
“I hope this is not their way to try to get out of it, to not bring Buckingham back,” he said. “It's sad that the community has to raise money to bring him back. Sacrifices can be made to cut costs in government, especially when there's obvious waste of public funds. There might also be spare money after the end of the fiscal year.”
Hunter echoed Benavente's sentiments on government priorities.
“I must say that is surprising that an administration that has spent so much money travelling would be concerned with the cost of airfare to return Buckingham to the CNMI. Fitial is currently away on a junket after just having returned from one weeks before. Many of the governor's trips have included the companionship of his press secretary, Angel Demapan, something many in the public have seen as an extravagant waste of public funds. Perhaps the administration can simply cancel of few of their planned junkets and prioritize those funds to the just return of Buckingham to the CNMI,” he said.
Hunter said he commends those suggesting a fundraising effort to bring back Buckingham.
“I have heard others suggest the same and many members of the community have openly offered to make personal donations to ensure that the former AG, now a fugitive, is brought back to face justice. I am sure any fundraising effort will garner much community support. One other option that I have heard discussed is an air mileage drive,” he said.
He said there is no question that Buckingham was served his penal summons.
“There is no question that he failed to abide by that court order. I would think that should he be extradited the costs involved in forcing him to do what he should have done voluntarily will eventually fall on him personally,” Hunter added.
Benavente said Buckingham should be brought back to the CNMI not only to face the criminal charges filed against him by the Office of the Public Auditor, but also to shed light on the no-bid, $190.8-million diesel power purchase agreement.
“It's a scam,” Benavente said, referring to the planned power plant and shipyard facility project in Lowe Base by Saipan Development LLC.
The PPA is now under temporary injunction. It was one of the issues cited in a defeated resolution to impeach the governor for 16 allegations of corruption, felony, and neglect of duty. The impeachment resolution would be re-introduced as early as January.
Senate President Paul Manglona (Ind-Rota) said the issue of money should not hold back a decision to extradite the former AG, who-along with the governor-signed a $190.8 million PPA when they knew the government and the CNMI people would have to pay for it.
“We're talking about $190.8-million that shouldn't have been signed in the first place,” he said, agreeing with Benavente's statement that the former AG should not only face the criminal charges filed by OPA but to answer lingering questions about the power purchase deal.
Hunter also said he hopes the Office of the Public Auditor, through its special prosecutor/assistant attorney general George Hasselback, “can once again pick up their slack and make the official request.”
Attorney General Joey Patrick San Nicolas earlier said he agrees with Delegate Sablan that extraditing Buckingham to the CNMI “would help restore and trust confidence in the Office of the Attorney General.” But he said he is “not at liberty to state with specificity what I will do at this time.”
Sablan said the U.S. Department of Justice is willing to pursue Buckingham but the CNMI has to initiate the process to extradite him. He said a request from San Nicolas to U.S. Attorney Alicia Limtiaco “would be necessary.to initiate Mr. Buckingham's capture.”
Acting governor Eloy S. Inos told reporters that the decision to extradite Buckingham rests with the attorney general, in consultation with the governor, and that the administration is also looking at the cost factor in the process.
Buckingham is facing criminal charges in connection with his alleged hosting of a political campaign in 2010 for the governor's delegate candidate, obstruction of justice in August 2012 when he allegedly used police and ports police officers to shield him from being served a penal summons, approval of a sole-source ARRA management contract, and approval of a no-bid, $190.8-million diesel power purchase agreement, among other things.