Superior Court Associate Judge Kenneth L. Govendo yesterday found former attorney general Edward T. Buckingham guilty of all public corruption charges except one and sentenced him to 3.5 years in prison, all suspended.
“I believe your testimony is disingenuous,” Govendo told the 65-year-old Buckingham in handing down the verdict.
In imposing a no-prison-term sentence, Govendo said he believes that jail is not appropriate considering that, among other things, Buckingham is not a typical criminal that stole or embezzled a huge amount of money or committed sexual abuse or violent crimes.
Govendo found Buckingham guilty of use of public supplies, time and personnel for campaign activities; use of the name of a government department or agency to campaign and/or express support for a candidate running for public office; misconduct in public office (related to campaign matter); conspiracy to commit theft of services (related to escort issue); misconduct in public office (pertaining to escort issue); conspiracy to commit theft service (related to use government counsels to represent him); and misconduct in public office (use of government counsels in his criminal case).
Govendo acquitted Buckingham on a count of failure to produce documents or information (pertaining to the Office of the Public Auditor’s investigation into a sole-source contract project).
Govendo announced his verdict yesterday at 10:15am. After hearing the verdict, attorney Richard Pierce, counsel for Buckingham, told the judge that they were ready for the sentencing. OPA legal counsel George Hasselback asked for more time so he could prepare his sentencing memorandum.
Govendo set the sentencing at 1:30pm yesterday.
At the sentencing hearing, Govendo also ordered the 65-year-old Buckingham to pay a $14,000 fine and placed him on unsupervised probation for 3.5 years.
Govendo barred the former AG from employment with the CNMI government for 20 years.
The judge exonerated Buckingham’s $50,000 that he posted for his temporary release. The $14,000 will be deducted from the $50,000 cash bail.
OPA counsel Hasselback recommended a sentence of one year in prison, without the possibility of parole, and the maximum $14,000 fine.
Hasselback said that imposing a jail term would serve the two most important factors—punishment and deterrence. He said that Buckingham was the highest law enforcer in the CNMI and was sworn to uphold the law, but that he perverted the office for his selfish interest.
“The eyes of the CNMI are on this case. The eyes of the people who do not want to participate in corrupt activities are fixed on this case,” the OPA counsel said.
Pierce recommended a sentence of unsupervised probation and $10,000 fine. He pointed out that Buckingham is 65 and has poor health so he should be allowed to return to his wife and family in Colorado.
Pierce pointed out that the harm suffered in this case is not large and that this case is isolated.
Before the sentence was handed down, Buckingham read to the court a brief statement. He apologized for his conduct and thanked Govendo for conducting an expedited trial. He asked the judge to consider his many years of public service, his health condition, and family.
Govendo said that based on his experience with Buckingham, who appeared in his courtroom for traffic cases, he finds him exceptionally competent, honest, and was fair.
Govendo said the problems began for Buckingham on a few bad days—at the Aug. 28, 2010, political gathering at former governor Benigno Fitial’s house and the Aug. 3 to 6, 2012, penal summons and escort issues.
Govendo said it’s guilt by association because Buckingham was counsel for Fitial, who was subsequently impeached.
The judge said Buckingham made an error and that he expressed remorse.
In rendering the verdict, Govendo said on the use of supplies charge, it is very obvious from the emails of Frieda Demapan, the executive secretary to the AG, or through communications, that Buckingham knew at least a month before the Aug. 28, 2010, gathering that the party was going to be a political one for then-delegate candidate and now Superior Court Associate Judge Joseph N. Camacho.
Govendo said that Buckingham should have issued communications directing or commanding the OAG staff not to appear at the party because it’s political.
“If you’ve done that, no OAG staff should have shown up and you’re not charged. But you didn’t!” the judge told Buckingham.
On theft of service for using OAG lawyers to represent him in his criminal case, Govendo said the defendant used OAG lawyers to go to court for the initial hearing.
The judge said he realizes the difficult position Buckingham was in when he received at 4am on Aug. 4, 2012, a document ordering him to appear in court on Aug. 6 at 9am. Govendo said the document did not give Buckingham enough time, as normally it gives a person being served with penal summons at least two weeks to appear in court.
Govendo said Buckingham should have contacted Hasselback on Aug. 3, 2012, or a simple call to Hasselback to give him (Buckingham) some time to appear.
Instead, the judge said, Buckingham called the OAG, telling them to represent him.
On the conspiracy charge, Govendo said Buckingham called Fitial on Aug. 3, 2012, that he was worried that KSPN2 reporter Tina Sablan was staking him out and the penal summons.
Govendo said that looking at phone records, between 4:53pm of Aug. 3, 2012, and 5:21am of Aug. 4, 2012, there were 25 calls to and from Fitial.
The judge noted that the calls included Fitial making six calls to his then driver/escort Police Capt. Jermaine Nekaifes, three to Commonwealth Ports Authority police chief Jordan Kosam, six to then-Department of Public Safety Ambrosio Ogumoro, and seven to Buckingham.
Govendo said Ogumoro called Buckingham five times.
To prove conspiracy, Govendo said the totality should be taken into consideration.
Govendo said that Buckingham, instead of going by himself and his wife straight to the airport, got police officers and armed escorts.
“It is a conspiracy!” the judge said.
The bench trial, which began Feb. 10, was historic as Buckingham is the first former AG in the CNMI to stand trial in a criminal case.
OPA originally filed 12 criminal charges against Buckingham in connection with violation of election laws and illegal award of a sole-source contract, among others.
Govendo earlier dismissed four charges, including those pertaining to the contract issue.