Judge Govendo warns Buckingham’s counsel with contempt
Jermaine Joseph Wabol Nekaifes, a former police captain who used to serve as an escort/driver of then-governor Benigno R. Fitial, testified yesterday that Fitial instructed him not to allow Federal Bureau of Investigation agents from approaching and serving a penal summons to former attorney general Edward T. Buckingham at the Saipan International Airport on Aug. 4, 2012.
Nekaifes, who testified for the government in the ongoing bench trial of Buckingham, also disclosed that he handed a document for Buckingham to sign that day upon Fitial’s instruction.
As this developed, Superior Court Associate Judge Kenneth L. Govendo, who is presiding over the bench trial, yesterday warned Buckingham’s lawyer, Richard Pierce, with contempt for “dancing around” in the proceedings.
Govendo became upset with Pierce’s comments or statements while cross-examining the government’s witness, Office of the Public Auditor investigator Juanette David-Atalig, and for using words such as “trick” when referring to how investigators obtained the penal summons from the Superior Court.
Govendo told Pierce that if he makes further comment like what he did on Tuesday when he expressed belief that he (Govendo) was siding with the OPA, he should file a motion to recuse him from the case.
Pierce replied that he did not say that statement.
“Mr. Pierce, you got the warning!” the judge said. “It’s not helping your client!”
On Tuesday’s hearing, Govendo sustained an objection by OPA legal counsel George Hasselback. Pierce made a comment that it appears that Govendo is siding. The judge immediately responded that he is not siding.
After OPA investigator David-Atalig completed her testimony yesterday, Hasselback called Nekaifes to the witness stand.
Nekaifes testified that when FBI special agent Haejun Park and another FBI agent arrived at the airport in the early morning of Aug. 4, 2012, Fitial talked to him on the phone and instructed him to prevent the two agents from serving the summons to Buckingham.
Nekaifes said Fitial told him not to be afraid and that if he [Fitial] was there he would prevent the agents from serving the penal summons.
Nekaifes said he did not obey the then-governor, who is his uncle, because he respects the FBI.
“We, in the law enforcement, going against the FBI, it is not right,” he pointed out.
Nekaifes recalled that on Aug. 3, 2012, at 5pm, he was in a car with Fitial outside First Hawaiian Bank when the then-governor received a phone call from Buckingham.
After the conversation, Nekaifes said Fitial instructed him to pick up Buckingham and his wife Pam from Aquarius Beach Hotel in Chalan Kanoa later that day, and that he would call him for further instruction.
At about 8pm that day, Nekaifes said the governor called and instructed him to go straight to Aquarius Hotel.
When asked why he was instructed to proceed to the hotel, he said Fitial explained that KSPN2 reporter Tina Sablan was camping out at Aquarius Hotel.
Nekaifes said Fitial stated that Buckingham wants to leave the CNMI without being interviewed by the press.
Upon Fitial’s alleged instruction, he said he left his house in Garapan on Aug. 4, 2012, at 3am, and he proceeded to Aquarius Hotel, where he saw Department of Public Safety then-deputy commissioner Ambrosio Ogumoro and some police officers.
Nekaifes said Ogumoro asked him if he is there to pick up the Buckinghams and he said yes.
Ogumoro told Nekaifes that he was there to assist the escort of the Buckinghams to the airport.
Nekaifes said he transported the couple to the airport. Ogumoro and some police officers followed to the airport.
Upon arrival at the airport, Nekaifes said he saw Tina Sablan close to the snack bar near the entrance to the terminal.
Nekaifes said that, while inside the car, he handed a document that Fitial asked Buckingham to sign. Nekaifes said he was not aware what the document was about because he did not read it.
At the airport, Nekaifes said that Tina Sablan wanted to speak with Buckingham but police officers blocked her.
Nekaifes said the officers blocked Sablan because Ogumoro instructed them to escort the Buckinghams to the airport without interruption. He said he heard Ogumoro giving instructions to the officers to prevent anyone from approaching Buckingham.
Nekaifes said he, Ogumoro, and other CPA officials later brought the Buckinghams to the VIP Lounge of the airport.
Nekaifes said he was with Buckingham, Ogumoro, and other CPA officials when FBI agent Park and another agent came in.
He said Ogumoro approached Park and the other agent. After a brief conversation with the agents, Ogumoro approached and told Buckingham that he will be served with summons.
Nekaifes said Ogumoro told Buckingham that he was given assurance by the FBI agents that he [Buckingham] will not be stopped from departing the CNMI. Park then served the penal summons to Buckingham, Nekaifes said.
Nekaifes said Buckingham later handed his phone to him and it was Fitial on the other line. Fitial reportedly told Nekaifes not to be afraid to prevent the agents from serving the summons to Buckingham.
He said he only replied “OK” to Fitial.
Nekaifes said it was already 6am when he left the airport and went straight to the residence of Fitial to deliver the document that Buckingham signed.
Nekaifes told Fitial that the summons was served, but the Buckinghams still made it to their flight.
He said Fitial only replied “OK.” Nekaifes then handed to him the document that Buckingham signed.
Nekaifes said he believes that part of the purpose of escorting the Buckinghams to the airport was to prevent OPA from serving the penal summons.
Nekaifes pointed out that Fitial and Ogumoro gave the instruction to block the serving of summons to Buckingham.
On questioning by Pierce, Nekaifes said he did not block the FBI or OPA from serving the summons.
“I did not obstruct anybody,” he said.
On Hasselback’s re-direct examination, Nekaifes disclosed that he came to an agreement with OPA and the Office of the Attorney General to testify and tell the truth. In exchange, he said he was promised that his criminal charges will be dismissed.
Hasselback agreed with Nekaifes about the deal.
Nekaifes, Fitial, Ogumoro, and several others are among those charged by OPA of alleged conspiracy to shield Buckingham from being served with penal summons.
The bench trial of Buckingham will continue today, Thursday.