16 Jul 2013

Uncertainty over whereabouts of former CNMI Govenor

5:17 pm on 16 July 2013

Uncertainty still surrounds the whereabouts of the former Northern Marianas Governor Benigno Fitial following the dramatic collapse of his political career earlier this year.

Mr Fitial fled the territory earlier this year, leaving behind him a vortex of legal issues which remain unresolved.

Jamie Tahana reports:

Sensing the inevitable, Benigno Fitial resigned as governor on 20 February. He had been impeached by the legislature and was to appear before a trial in the Senate, as our correspondent Mark Rabago recalls.

"MARK RABAGO: He was impeached by the house because of several articles of impeachment basically focused on management. Apparently there were some deals that weren't above board, and there were also some questions about him backing then-delegate Camacho and at the same time his attorney general [was] organising a party for him which is supposed to be an unpolitical office."

The former governor still faces several criminal charges for allegedly shielding his former attorney general, Edward Buckingham from being served a penal summons as he fled the territory last August. Mr Fitial had also been summonsed for releasing a prisoner in the middle of the night to give him a back massage. But the Governor bolted from the commonwealth within 24 hours of resigning and the Superior Court issued a penal summons. But a political activist who's followed the case closely, Glen Hunter, says the summons sat at Saipan Airport for three months waiting for Mr Fitial to return, which he never did.

GLEN HUNTER: Initially what I believe happened is the prosecution asked for an arrest warrant and then one was issued. But then out of respect it was immediately converted over to a penal summons and that's kind of like a softer version of an arrest warrant. However, it's been months since the governor left the island and it's pretty much public knowledge that there's been a penal summons waiting for him here is Saipan and he has failed to return.

Glen Hunter says that after a campaign by the Office of the Public Auditor, which is leading the prosecution, the court reissued the arrest warrant on 20 June. But while the hunt for Benigno Fitial took centre stage, Edward Buckingham also remained at large. Mark Rabago says Buckingham was initially thought to be in Iowa but was later found to be in the US state of Colorado, but not by Northern Marianas authorities.

MARK RABAGO: Because there's another case against him, that was a lawsuit filed by a former employee of the office of the attorney general, they called on assistance from a private detective and he was served summons by that private company that eventually tracked him down to Colorado.

Edward Buckingham was arrested in Denver in May, and then later caught everyone by surprise when, on the 28th of May, he voluntarily returned to the Commonwealth and handed himself in after spending nine months on the run. However, by returning to the CNMI, Mr Buckingham may have breached his bail conditions in Colorado which ordered him not to leave the state. Edward Buckingham is now back in Colorado for medical reasons, but a date for his trial has been set for next February in Saipan. Benigno Fitial was also recently reported to be in the Philippines recovering from Gall bladder surgery. But Mark Rabago says it's not likely that he'll be back in Saipan any time soon.

MARK RABAGO: He's believed to still be in Manila recuperating from surgery, there were reports that he is already in a wheelchair and that he may not be coming back to Saipan because of his condition.

He says the United States does have an extradition treaty with the Philippines, but the new governor, Eloy Inos, has not made any mention of whether he will request it.