TO OBTAIN WHATSAPP CONVERSATIONS

FBI seizes Mayor Atalig’s cellphone

Federal Bureau of Investigation special agents seized last Nov. 29 the CNMI government-issued cellular phones of Rota Mayor Efraim M. Atalig and his girlfriend, Evelyn M. Atalig, and two others in order to obtain their WhatsApp conversations during their trip in Guam last June.

According to court documents obtained by Saipan Tribune yesterday, FBI special agents seized the phones after obtaining a search warrant issued by U.S. District Court for the NMI Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona.

Aside from the phones of mayor Atalig and Evelyn Atalig, FBI special agents also seized the cell phones of Rota resident deputy commissioner for the Department of Fire and Emergency and Medical Services Dennis Mendiola and Rota resident director for the Department of Finance Josepha Manglona.

Mendiola and Manglona were among the seven Rota municipal officials charged by the Office of the Attorney General before the Superior Court in connection with the Guam political rally in June 2018. Mayor Atalig was also charged in that case.

Last Nov. 28, the U.S. government filed a superseding indictment in federal court charging mayor Atalig and Evelyn Atalig, with five corruption charges for allegedly arranging CNMI government-funded trips to California, Republic of Palau, Guam, and Saipan under fraudulent pretenses.

The superseding indictment charged mayor Atalig and Ms. Atalig with conspiracy, wire fraud, theft from program receiving federal funds, and two counts of false statements.

Mayor Atalig and Evelyn Atalig pleaded not guilty.

In his affidavit in support of search warrant, FBI special agent Haejun Park disclosed that on June 22, 2018, the FBI received a referral from the CNMI Office of the Public Auditor advising of a 14-person delegation traveling from Rota to Guam on a CNMI-funded five-day trip.

Park said the trip was under the guise of procuring used federal government equipment from the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) located on the U.S. Navy base in Guam.

Park said the CNMI government has previously procured used government equipment from the DLA on previous occasions.

Coincidentally, he said, a campaign rally for Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres and his then-runningmate Senate President Arnold Palacios (R-Saipan) was scheduled for June 23, 2018 in Mangilao, Guam.

Park said the rally was highly advertised on social media.

The special agent said OPA provided numerous documents to the FBI, including CNMI travel authorizations for several members of the Rota delegation.

Park said during the FBI’s interview in Guam last July 23, a DLA employee advised that in June 2015, an unidentified male from Rota showed up at the DLA office in Guam unannounced and attempted to visit the facility, which is not the established process to visit the facility for official business.

The employee denied access to the unidentified male since the visit was not coordinated through the CNMI government’s liaison to the DLA.

Park said according to the DLA employee after denying him access, the individual became angry.

The individual then stated that he would speak to someone above the CNMI liaison and also advised the DLA employee that he was on Guam for his military service drill and only wanted to stop at the DLA to see what equipment was available.

Park said the DLA employee stated that the last visit to the DLA facility by CNMI officials occurred in March 2018, which followed the correct protocol and was coordinated through the CNMI liaison.

Park said as further confirmation, sign-in logs did not show anyone from Rota visiting the facility in June 2018, and also confirmed that the last CNMI visit occurred in March 2018.

Park said during the FBI’s separate interview in Guam last July 23, the CNMI liaison advised that she did not coordinate any CNMI visits to the DLA for the month of June 2018.

Park said that, in June 2018, the CNMI liaison denied a late request from an employee of mayor Atalig’s office.

The FBI special agent said that he interviewed on Rota last Aug. 9, Rota resident director for the Department of Commerce Dean Reynold Atalig Manglona and Rota resident director for the Department of Public Safety Eusebio Mendiola Manglona.

Dean and Eusebio Manglona were among the seven charged in the Superior Court.

Park said Dean and Eusebio Manglona advised that while they and the rest of the Rota delegation were in Guam during the June 20-25 2018 time period, the delegation members all stayed in contact with one another using “WhatsApp” on their CNMI government-issued mobile devices.

Park said he also conducted interviews of Rota delegation members mayor Atalig, Evelyn Manglona Atalig, Josepha Barcinas Manglona, and Dennis James Camacho Mendiola.

Park said WhatsApp messages, images, audio, and video are sent and received through a cell phone internet connection and not through cellular data such as SMX text messages.

He said WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption and does not store messages once delivered, meaning WhatsApp communications can only be obtained from the mobile device itself.

Park said he viewed publicly accessible social media posting for the June 20-25 time frame which showed several members of the Rota delegation participating in the CNMI Republican rally held on Guam.

Among the numerous photos in Facebook, the special agent said, Rota officials can be seen during the rally, to include pictures of mayor Atalig, Torres, Arnold Palacios, and other Rota government officials.

Park said that last July 27, he obtained CNMI-Rota Department of Finance documents confirming that Mayor Atalig authorized disbursements in excess of $5,000 for the delegation’s trip to Guam.

Park said payments came from the “Rota Imprest Fund,” a CNMI-government account which is funded by the CNMI general fund.

Park said he reviewed the CNMI general fund account ledger that shows that during a one-year period ending on June 25, 2018, the CNMI general fund received benefits under a federal program in excess of $10,000.

Park said personal devices can store information for long periods of time.

He said this information can sometimes be recovered with forensics tools.

He said agents will obtain forensics images of the storage drive on the subject device.

Park said a forensic image captures all of the data on the hard drive or other media without the data being viewed and without changing the data in any way.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a veteran journalist who has covered all news beats in the CNMI. Born in Lilo-an, Cebu City in the Philippines, De la Torre graduated from the University of Santo Tomas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He is a recipient of many commendations and awards, including the CNMI Judiciary’s prestigious Justice Award for his over 10 years of reporting on the judiciary’s proceedings and decisions. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@saipantribune.com

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