Former attorney general Edward T. Buckingham took the witness stand yesterday to state that then-governor Benigno R. Fitial provided him the escort service on Aug. 4, 2012, after he called Fitial about a reporter’s stakeout at the hotel where he was staying.
As this developed, Office of the Public Auditor legal counsel George Hasselback and attorney Richard Pierce, counsel for Buckingham, gave their closing arguments yesterday afternoon. Hasselback will make his rebuttal when the bench trial continues today, Wednesday, at 9am.
When trial resumed yesterday morning, Pierce called the defense’s last witness, Buckingham.
The former AG testified that he did not endorse the candidacy of then-delegate candidate and now Superior Court Associate Judge Joseph N. Camacho at a party at Fitial’s house in Gualo Rai on Aug. 28, 2010. He also denied committing the other allegations in the criminal complaint filed by OPA.
Buckingham said that on Aug. 3, 2012, his wife told him that she received a call from KSPN2 reporter Tina Sablan, who was staking him out. Buckingham said he believed it an act of harassment and that it was part of the reason why he called Fitial.
The former AG said he conveyed to Fitial that his wife was scared and crying.
Buckingham said there was a period of silence, then Fitial stated that he [Buckingham] was still the AG and that he [Fitial] would take steps to give him escort service.
Buckingham said he resigned as AG on Aug. 3, 2012, but that the effective date of his resignation was after 30 days. He said he resigned because of his health problems and to spend more time with his wife.
He said Fitial indicated that an escort service would be appropriate and that he would be receiving further instructions from then-Department of Public Safety deputy commissioner Ambrosio Ogumoro.
On his alleged endorsement of then-delegate candidate Camacho, Buckingham said that Frieda Demapan, then-executive assistant to the AG, told him about a Facebook announcement of the OAG’s planned party at Fitial’s house that contained a message of endorsement for Camacho’s candidacy.
“I listened to Frieda Demapan. I’m very concerned at that time,” said Buckingham.
He said he spoke with Fitial and that Fitial stated that the Facebook posting should be removed.
On Pierce’s questioning, Buckingham said he did not endorse Camacho’s candidacy to the OAG staff and to the people who attended the party at Fitial’s house.
At the gathering, Buckingham said, he only made introductory statements. He said that after receiving adverse reactions and criticism for that party, he later issued a press release, stating that he and the OAG were not endorsing Camacho’s candidacy.
Since there was public perception that he supported Camacho’s candidacy, Buckingham said he recused himself from handling the election matter at the time and appointed another government lawyer to serve as acting AG.
Buckingham said he was aware that, as an AG, it was irregular and improper to endorse a political candidate.
On the matter of OPA’s request for documents, Buckingham said he then issued a press release, saying he welcomes any investigation and that he wants all requested documents provided to OPA.
On the allegations that he conspired to avoid being served a criminal penal summons, Buckingham said he did not agree with Ogumoro to oppose the summons.
In fact, he said, he asked Ogumoro to tell Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent Haejun Park to come and have him deliver the document.
Buckingham admitted that he was in his room at the Aquarius Beach Tower when OPA investigators asked his wife if he was inside. He said he did not instruct his wife to tell OPA investigators he was not there.
Buckingham also admitted that he instructed assistant attorney general Gilbert Birnbrich, then and now chief of the OAG Civil Division, to receive the OPA summons.
Buckingham said that upon his arrival at the Saipan International Airport in the early morning of Aug. 4, 2012, he saw Tina Sablan and that there were police officers separating her from him.
Buckingham said it was his first time he see a criminal penal summons that directed a person to appear in court one and a half days later.
Pertaining to his use of OAG lawyers to serve as his counsel in his criminal case, Buckingham admitted that he asked the department head to represent him for a limited special appearance.
He said he respects the court so he had to do that (legal representation) instead of simply ignoring the court.
Buckingham said he conveyed to Birnbrich that if the court does not want an OAG lawyer to represent him, he [Buckingham] will appear telephonically.
He said he then retained a private counsel at his expense.
On Hasselback’s cross-examination, Buckingham said he asked Frieda Demapan to coordinate the party at Fitial’s residence with the OAG staff.
Buckingham admitted that he gave Demapan $250 to spend for the party. He said he encouraged the OAG staff to attend but explained it was not mandatory.
Buckingham said he was very careful to avoid any endorsements in his remarks at the party.
He admitted that he retained private counsel G. Anthony Long at the government’s expense in defending himself against an OPA investigation.