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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

‘No one is above the law but…’

Within hours of Edward Taylor Buckingham III’s conviction and sentencing related to charges of misconduct and corruption, private citizens and elected officials said yesterday this only goes to show that “no one is above the law” and that the former “silent majority” will no longer tolerate abuse of power and corruption in government. Later in the day, however, some were taken aback by the “no jail time” sentence and $14,000 fine imposed on the CNMI’s former highest law enforcement officer.

“Given the magnitude of the offenses and him being attorney general when those acts were committed, one would expect there would be at least jail time,” Rep. Ray Tebuteb (Ind-Saipan) told Saipan Tribune during a House session break yesterday.

While the conviction tells the public that “no one is above the law,” he said it also “seems like it’s okay to commit those wrongdoing in the CNMI because you won’t be imprisoned anyway.”

Tebuteb, however, said he respects the judicial process.

As a member of the Legislature that helped bring to light many of the issues related to the charges against Buckingham as well as former governor Benigno R. Fitial, Tebuteb said lawmakers need to “re-examine the ethics law” and related laws to “ensure tougher penalties for government officials” found guilty of corruption, among other things.

Rep. Janet Maratita (Ind-Saipan) said the court has spoken, just as the people have spoken on the issue of corruption.

“It’s a lesson for all government officials that no one is above the law, regardless of who you are and what you are. We live in a society that is governed by the rule of law,” she said.

Glen Hunter, a private citizen who has been advocating for an accountable and corruption-free government, said the verdict “should send a message to those in our government and those in positions of authority that they are not above the law and that the people are not afraid.”

On a personal level, Hunter is “relieved to see closure in this particular issue” but said there are “other connected issues that are still outstanding and I hope that they too are eventually finalized.”

Buckingham is the first former attorney general in CNMI history to stand trial on criminal charges.

His conviction and sentencing happened on the eve of the one-year anniversary of Fitial’s resignation on Feb. 20, 2013, days before the start of the former governor’s impeachment trial at the Senate for corruption, neglect of duty, and felony. The charges leveled against Buckingham were related to the articles of impeachment against Fitial.

Some lawmakers that supported Fitial’s impeachment said yesterday that if Buckingham was found guilty of most charges, “how much more Fitial, who was the one who ordered Buckingham and others to do things and charged with criminal acts?”

‘More trials’

Despite their disappointment with the lack of jail time for Buckingham, citizens and government officials were still elated to see that “justice is served.”

Tina Sablan, a former KSPN2 reporter who caught on camera Buckingham’s “escort” saga from the Aquarius Hotel to the Saipan International Airport in 2012, said yesterday that “like many citizens of the CNMI, I do feel a sense of relief that Mr. Buckingham has finally had his day in court, and that justice has been served.”

“As we all know, however, this story does not end with the former attorney general’s conviction and sentencing,” she said.

Sablan said there were other public officials who were also implicated in criminal conspiracies with Buckingham and who were also involved in various acts of misconduct and abuse of power.

“These individuals have yet to be brought to justice. There should be more trials to come, including that of former governor Benigno Fitial, who remains at large. Mr. Fitial must be brought back to the CNMI to face his charges,” Sablan added.

Sablan, now pursuing urban planning at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, hopes that the Buckingham case “serves to restore some of the public trust that was lost, strengthens our commitment to safeguarding freedom of the press and the independence of our watchdog agencies, and reminds us all of how important it is to continue in our collective efforts to clean up our government and hold our public officials accountable when they abuse the power we give them.”

Sablan, a former member of the CNMI House of Representatives, added that she has “so much respect and gratitude for the many fine people who found the courage to do the right thing even when it was hard.”

She was referring to “the incredibly dedicated staff of the Office of the Public Auditor, the whistleblowers and media tipsters, the citizens who rallied in the streets, the lawmakers who stood with them, the government witnesses who told the truth at trial.”

“I think as a community, we have learned many valuable lessons these last few years about how dangerous it is to allow ourselves to be ruled by complacency and fear. I hope that these are lessons we remember forever, and teach our children,” she added.

Hunter, meanwhile, added that the once “silent majority” in the CNMI should feel a sense of vindication.

He said they “pushed aside their fears and took a stand against a corrupt administration.”

“I believe the verdict is yet another step toward a better CNMI,” he added.

Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) said the verdict of guilty on seven counts “goes to show that no one, including the Commonwealth’s chief law enforcement official, is above the law.”

“I cannot say that I am pleased that our Commonwealth had to go through this trial. But we have. And we must remain vigilant in the conduct of the public’s business and we can, today, say to ourselves that we will no longer tolerate the abuse of power by our public officials,” Sablan said when sought for comment.

‘Let justice take its course’

Rep. Tony Sablan (Ind-Saipan), chairman of the former Special Committee on Impeachment, said the conviction is a result of “what was going on” in previous years, and “that something was wrong in the way government was being run back then.”

“At the end of the day, this is a judicial process. We just have to respect the outcome… At least the people have spoken, the Legislature has spoken, and now the courts are in agreement that what we saw going on in government back then was wrong, that government officials, people in government should be [held] accountable for their action, that no one is above the law…” the former CNMI immigration director said.

When asked whether the Buckingham conviction would help strengthen the criminal case against Fitial himself who was the subject of impeachment resolutions, Sablan said the judicial process should be allowed to take its course.

House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan), main author of the impeachment resolutions against Fitial, echoed Sablan’s statement to allow the judicial process “to take its course.”

The speaker said he won’t comment further on Fitial’s criminal case “because I do want him to have a fair trial.”

“Let the prosecution and the defense argue their points and then what happens as a result of that, we’ll see,” Deleon Guerrero added.

In the halls of the CNMI Legislature and other government and private sector offices, the breaking news of the former attorney general’s fate instantly became a hot topic yesterday.

Not to be outdone, social media was also abuzz with the Buckingham verdict and sentence within minutes of the court decisions.

“Finally, he should have pleaded but no, he was so sure the climate is still the same…wrong!” one said on social media. Another one said, “Decision was spot on, but the conviction is not punitive at all.”

“Judge Govendo applied the law appropriately. He is just bound by CNMI law—it’s up to the Legislature to fix those discrepancies. More broadly, it’s really up to us voters,” another one wrote.

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