House vice speaker Frank Dela Cruz (Ind-Saipan) is prefiling next week a joint resolution, to be co-authored by other members, urging Gov. Eloy S. Inos to “begin the process” of extraditing former governor Benigno R. Fitial to face the criminal charges against him. Acting governor Jude U. Hofschneider said yesterday he shares the community’s sentiment of putting closure on the matter but declined to comment further.
Dela Cruz disclosed the plan to craft a joint resolution on the one-year anniversary of Fitial’s resignation on Feb. 20, 2013, just days before the start of his impeachment trial at the Senate for corruption, felony, and neglect of duty.
“I know this is going to be a tedious process, since the Philippines is a foreign country, but at the same time, it has been done before,” Dela Cruz said, referring to attorney Joey Arriola, who was extradited also from the Philippines.
Fitial is believed to be in the Philippines, his wife’s home country.
Rep. Mario Taitano (Ind-Saipan) separately said yesterday that “it’s about time” that the former governor is brought to justice.
“He should be extradited to face the charges against him. I also supported the impeachment against him so there’s no reason for me not to support a joint resolution to extradite him. If we keep on procrastinating, the statute of limitation may expire soon. It’s time to do something,” Taitano said.
Taitano and Dela Cruz are among the House members who voted to impeach Fitial—one in 2012 and one in 2013; but it was the latter that was successful after voters put into power most pro-impeachment lawmakers and candidates.
Dela Cruz was also the main author of a resolution urging the governor to initiate the process to extradite former attorney general Edward Taylor Buckingham III, who was convicted and sentenced on Wednesday related to misconduct and corruption.
After Buckingham’s sentencing, the focus shifted to Fitial, who is facing criminal charges for his role in an alleged conspiracy to shield Buckingham from being served a penal summons in August 2012.
“There are still a lot of unanswered questions with regards to Mr. Buckingham’s case. He even admitted himself that it wasn’t his idea to have an escort service by public officials on government time. And so those are the things that we look at,” Dela Cruz told Saipan Tribune.
He added that there is an arrest warrant against the former governor.
“I think it’s only right and fair that Mr. Fitial come back and answer those charges so that at least then maybe we can have closure on the issue. I believe that the impeachment process was just the first step. And the second step now is to try and have the former governor answer the charges that he’s being charged with,” the vice speaker added.
Inos, exactly a week after he was sworn in as governor in February last year, signed an extradition letter addressed to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, for Buckingham.
For others like Rep. Roman Benavente (Ind-Saipan), for example, asking Inos to begin the extradition process for Fitial is a “very sensitive matter.”
Inos and Fitial are longtime friends. When Fitial stepped down amid the impeachment process against him, an unprecedented event in CNMI history, his lieutenant governor Inos became governor.
Inos is running for governor in this November’s general elections, with Senate President Ralph Torres (R-Saipan) as his running mate. Inos is currently in Washington, D.C. for a series of meetings and is not expected to be back until Feb. 28.
Hofschneider, the acting governor, said yesterday he has yet to talk to Inos about the matter.
But when asked what he would personally like to happen, he said, “I would like to see this issue resolved.”
“And of course, one being out of the way already, and we like to get a closure, I’m sure the community would like to get a closure on the matter,” he said.
When asked whether this means bringing Fitial back to the CNMI to face charges, Hofschneider said, “If that’s what it takes to have a closure for this community, the CNMI, then that’s the closure, it should be.”
Hofschneider said he has also yet to speak to Attorney General Joey Patrick San Nicolas, because he is “on personal leave.”
Some senators, meanwhile, said yesterday that when the House joint resolution urging the governor to initiate Fitial’s extradition reaches the Senate, they would support it.
Superior Court Associate Judge David Wiseman initially issued an arrest warrant against Fitial on March 6, 2013, but withdrew it the following day and instead issued a penal summons that ordered Fitial to appear in court at 9am on the first Monday after receiving the summons.
But Fitial has never returned to the CNMI since he left in February 2013. The Office of the Public Auditor said Fitial has never communicated plans to return to the CNMI.
Only Fitial remains unserved with the arrest warrant in connection with the alleged conspiracy case. The other persons charged were Buckingham, former Department of Public Safety deputy commissioner Ambrosio Ogumoro, Commonwealth Ports Authority police chief Jordon Kosam, CPA’s Capt. Juan T. Rebuenog, and Fitial’s former personal driver and bodyguard, Jermaine Joseph W. Nekaifes.