Change of plea hearing through Skype discontinued due to audio problem
Former governor Benigno R. Fitial and the CNMI government have submitted a proposed plea agreement to the Superior Court to resolve his criminal case without going to trial.
As this developed, Fitial’s scheduled change of plea hearing yesterday at 1:30pm through Skype did not push through because of an audio problem.
Associate Judge David A. Wiseman ordered the hearing to continue at a later time, saying he will take the initiative to arrange the proceedings at the U.S. District Court for the NMI as it has more sophisticated equipment.
Saipan Tribune learned that Fitial, his lawyer Stephen Nutting, and Office of the Public Auditor legal counsel George Hasselback signed the plea deal on Monday, while Chief Prosecutor Leonardo Rapadas signed it on Tuesday.
Sources said Fitial may enter a guilty plea to two offenses: misconduct in public office and conspiracy to commit theft of service.
The offense of misconduct in public office refers to Fitial’s actions related to the temporary departure of a female Chinese prisoner from the Department of Corrections on Jan. 8, 2010.
The court has already dismissed this charge but sources said that under the plea agreement, both sides agreed to vacate the dismissal.
The conspiracy to commit theft of services refers to Fitial’s role related to former attorney general Edward T. Buckingham’s efforts to evade the service of process during his departure from the Commonwealth at the Francisco C. Ada International Airport on Aug. 3 or 4, 2012.
The three other remaining charges against the former governor are two counts of misconduct in public office and a count of theft of services.
These remaining charges refer to alleged criminal activity associated with the police escort provided Buckingham in August 2012 that shielded him from being served with penal summons.
At yesterday afternoon’s scheduled change of plea hearing, the 69-year-old Fitial appeared through Skype from the Philippines, where he is currently undergoing medical rehabilitation.
Wiseman told the former governor that it’s the first time he conducted a change of plea hearing through Skype and that he is accommodating the arrangement because of Fitial’s illness.
Wiseman asked Fitial if he is waiving his right to be physically present in court for the change of plea hearing. The former governor, however, stated he could not hear clearly. Fitial’s image then disappeared from the screen.
Nutting tried to fix the equipment and even put the laptop in front of Wiseman, but Fitial still said he could not hear clearly.
This prompted Wiseman to order the continuation of the hearing in federal court, which according to him has state-of-the-art equipment. The judge told the parties that he will inform them about the hearing date.
The judge said the case is too important for the Commonwealth. He told Nutting to communicate with Fitial about the next hearing date.
Nutting and Hasselback have been negotiating to resolve the criminal case through non-trial disposition since last February.
Among those who watched the hearing were Fitial’s family members, relatives, friends, and his co-defendant, former Department of Public Safety deputy commissioner Ambrosio Ogumoro.
The government, through Hasselback, originally filed 13 criminal charges against Fitial.
Aside from the escape of a detainee and the shielding of Buckingham, the government also alleged two other incidents—misconduct in public office related to the award of a contract to former Commerce Secretary Michael Ada to perform services related to the use of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds in October 2010 and the execution of a power purchase agreement contract related to the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. in August 2010.