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Friday, April 25, 2014

Historic trial of Buckingham begins

Former attorney general Edward T. Buckingham yesterday at the Superior Court. (Ferdie de la Torre) Edward T. Buckingham appeared yesterday before the Superior Court, making him the first former attorney general in CNMI history to stand trial on criminal charges.

When Saipan Tribune left the courtroom at 4:15pm, Gilbert Birnbrich, chief of the Office of the Attorney General’s Civil Division, was still testifying for the CNMI government.

Birnbrich was the fifth government witness that Office of the Public Auditor legal counsel George Hasselback called to the witness stand yesterday.

Birnbrich testified that he represented Buckingham at the initial hearing in the Superior Court on Aug. 6, 2012, upon the latter’s instruction.

After the hearing, he said he proceeded to the OAG’s Criminal Division where he, then chief prosecutor Peter Prestley, and other government lawyers had a teleconference with Buckingham, who was at the time already off-island.

Birnbrich recalled that prior to the hearing, he had a talk with Prestley in which they went over the mechanics of representing Buckingham in the case.

At the time, Birnbrich said, he had no clear determination whether they could represent Buckingham so he went ahead with the special appearance.

He said his understanding at the time was that since Buckingham left the CNMI, he would serve as acting AG, but he was not.

Birnbrich said he could not recall why Buckingham wanted the OAG Civil Division lawyers to represent him and not the OAG’s Criminal Division.

Birnbrich said that based on the statements of Superior Court Associate Judge David A. Wiseman at the hearing, he then believed that the OAG could not represent Buckingham in the criminal case.

At the Aug. 6, 2012, hearing, Wiseman said Birnbrich has no lawful authority to represent a criminal defendant.

Another government witness yesterday was Frieda Demapan, executive assistant to the AG. Demapan testified that Buckingham asked her to coordinate an event at then-governor Benigno R. Fitial’s house in Gualo Rai on Aug. 28, 2010, for now Superior Court Associate Judge Joseph N. Camacho, who was then a delegate candidate.

Demapan said she was concerned that it was going to be a political event for the Covenant Party so she advised Buckingham to turn it down. She said she could not remember exactly what Buckingham’s reply was.

“Buckingham is a good man. To me he was being forced. Not exactly forced but that’s the way I feel,” she added.

Demapan disclosed that she also wrote a letter to Buckingham, telling him that Fitial should apologize to him for making him organize a political event.

“I don’t want him [Buckingham] in trouble,” she said.

Demapan admitted that she attended the Aug. 28, 2010, event that was attended by many lawyers and OAG staff, but that she left early because she felt uncomfortable, knowing at the time that Camacho was running for delegate.

Demapan said that Buckingham asked her to make the arrangement for the event after a mandatory meeting at Saipan World Resort. She said Buckingham told her that when he went to the meeting, he was assigned to host the event.

Demapan said she expressed concern that Buckingham, as an AG, was hosting a political event.

She said Buckingham gave her only $250 for the event, but a Facebook page was inviting the public to attend the campaign party.

She said she wondered how $250 could feed the public.

Demapan said that after the party, she sent an email to Buckingham, in which she expressed her anger about the event.

When asked by Hasselback why she sent the email to Buckingham’s personal address, Demapan said she did not want Fitial to see it, for fear that the governor would fire her.

The trial is expected to continue today, Tuesday. Associate Judge Kenneth L. Govendo is presiding over the bench trial.

Attorney Richard Pierce is counsel for Buckingham.

The Office of the Public Auditor filed 12 criminal charges against Buckingham in connection with an alleged violation of election laws and illegal award of a sole-source contract, among others.

Govendo dismissed four charges, including those pertaining to the contract issue.

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