Superior Court Associate Judge David A. Wiseman has set the change of plea hearing for former governor Benigno R. Fitial at the U.S. District Court for the NMI on Wednesday morning.
Wiseman ordered Fitial, his lawyer Stephen Nutting, and Office of the Public Auditor legal counsel George L. Hasselback and the CNMI government’s representative to appear at the 11am hearing.
Wiseman ordered Fitial to arrange and be present at a suitable facility in the Philippines that can facilitate a high quality video/audition transmission for this procedure.
The judge directed Fitial and Nutting to perform a test a day or more prior to the scheduled hearing and the results of the test to be reported to the court.
Fitial’s scheduled change of plea hearing last Wednesday, May 6, via Skype did not push through because of an audio problem.
The 69-year-old Fitial is currently in the Philippines, where he is undergoing medical rehabilitation.
At Wednesday’s change of plea hearing, the communication commenced and then began fading, which resulted in Fitial being unable to hear Wiseman. The Internet connection also phased out at least twice during the hearing.
In his order on Thursday setting the new change of plea hearing date, Wiseman said in view of the highly important dialog that must be conducted with Fitial for the hearing and the need for his full comprehension and participation in and to the proceedings, the technological equipment set up for communication was less than desirable to meet the standard of communication that the court deems necessary and appropriate.
Wiseman canceled the hearing last Wednesday and arranged for it to be held at the U.S. District Court for the NMI, which has superior telecommunication equipment for purposes of conducting video conferences.
Fitial and the CNMI government have submitted their plea agreement to court to resolve his criminal case without going to trial.
Saipan Tribune learned that Fitial, Nutting, Hasselback, and Chief Prosecutor Leonardo Rapadas signed the plea agreement.
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 prisoner from the Department of Corrections on Jan. 8, 2010.
The court already dismissed this charge, but sources said that under the plea agreement, the parties agreed to vacate the dismissal.
Conspiracy to commit theft of services charge refers to Fitial’s role related to former Attorney General Edward T. Buckingham’s efforts to evade lawful service of process during his departure from the Commonwealth at the Francisco C. Ada Saipan 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.
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.