Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent Haejun Park has denied the allegations made by Rota Mayor Efraim M. Atalig and his girlfriend, Evelyn Atalig, that he tried to dissuade Dr. Gregory Vecchi, a former special agent with the Office of the Inspector General, from testifying on behalf of the Ataligs’ defense in the case.
In his declaration filed last week before the U.S. District Court for the NMI, Park also stated he made no reference as to the strength of the U.S. government’s case against Efraim Atalig.
“The telephone call was professional in nature with no intent to discourage Vecchi from testifying on behalf of the defense,” he said.
Park issued the declaration in support of the U.S. government’s opposition to the Ataligs’ motion to sanctions him for misconduct.
In their motion to impose sanctions, Efraim Atalig and Evelyn Atalig, through their counsels, David G. Banes and Steven P. Pixley, said Park committed witness tampering.
Banes and Pixley said that the Ataligs filed a joint motion last March 6, to add Vecchi as an expert witness on interviewing techniques and reporting involved in a criminal investigation.
Two days later or on March 8, Vecchi received a call from Park, Banes and Pixley said. They said Park started the conversation by reminding Vecchi that they served abroad years ago and talked about their previous assignments together before revealing that he was the case agent in this case.
The lawyers said Park gave Vecchi the impression that the prosecution had a strong case and made negative remarks about the defense investigator, who is a former FBI special agent.
But in his declaration, Park said that, last March 8 after being made aware of the Ataligs’ motion to add Vecchi as an expert witness, he called Vecchi on the phone to inquire about what the latter maybe testifying as an expert witness for the defense.
Park said that assistant U.S. attorney Eric O’Malley and the Office of the Public’s Auditor Travis Hurst were present in the conference room with him during the phone conversation.
Park said he made the call on his government-issued cell phone and that the conversation pertaining to Vecchi’s statements were not overheard by O’Malley or Hurst since the call was not in speaker phone mode.
He said after a brief casual conversation with Vecchi about being deployed to Iraq together years ago, he advised Vecchi that he was the case agent for the ongoing criminal investigation into Efraim Atalig.
Park said he mentioned that Vecchi was recently included in a motion by the defense attorney as an expert witness, that he advised Vecchi that the reason for the call was to inquire about what Vecchi may be testifying about.
The special agent said Vecchi confirmed that he was indeed recently contacted by the defense but that Vecchi “had no clue” what the defense was asking him to testify about. He said Vecchi advised that he was waiting for a response from the defense on the approval for the defense to pay him.
Park said when asked about Vecchi’s travel plans to Saipan for the jury trial supposedly starting last March 10, Vecchi said he was not aware of the trial date and he did not have any travel arrangements to come to the island.
Park said when asked about whether former FBI special agent Jay Wolfe from the defense had contacted him, Vecchi replied that he did not know Wolfe. Park said he advised Vecchi that Wolfe is a former FBI special agent and his former co-worker, was recently terminated, and now working as a defense investigator.
“At the conclusion of the call, I advised Vecchi that we should meet up [on] Saipan for social purposes after the trial to which he agreed by asking me to send him my contact information,” he said.
Park said the conversation was cordial in nature, with Vecchi even stating that he was currently relaxing on his patio deck smoking a cigar.
In the opposition to the motion, assistant U.S. attorney Garth Backe, O’Malley’s co-counsel for the U.S. government in the Ataligs’ case, said the court should deny the Ataligs’ motion because it is both legally unsupported and factually incorrect.
Although communicating with an opposing party’s expert witness is arguably prohibited in civil cases, or at least it was at some time, Backe said there is no such prohibition—legal or ethical—in the criminal context. Backe noted that at the time of the call, Vecchi was not a witness for the defense.
“To the government’s understanding, he had not yet signed a contract or accepted a retainer, and therefore had no binding legal relationship with the defense,” the prosecutor said.
In the federal court case, the charges against Efraim and Evelyn Atalig involve at least eight trips taken by the couple at different times in 2018 to Guam, Palau, the U.S. mainland, South Korea, and Saipan.
The Ataligs are being charged jointly with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and theft from program receiving federal funds, wire fraud, and theft from program receiving federal funds. Both are also charged separately with false statement.
Last week, U.S. District Court for the NMI Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona postponed the jury trial due to coronavirus pandemic. Manglona vacated the jury trial set to begin last Wednesday and the motion hearing set for Tuesday last week.
A status conference is set for April 29 at 1:30pm.
In the Superior Court case, Efraim Atalig and the seven co-defendants are being charged with misconduct in public office in connection with a Guam political rally. It is not clear when that trial will proceed due to the coronavirus pandemic and other reasons.