July 10, 2013
|Chief Prosecutor Shelli Neal|
Apparently, AG San Nicolas knew about the trip details, including that fact that Ogumoro was piloting the boat, before Neal departed.
It appears that Attorney General San Nicolas was untruthful in his July 8th interview with KSPN news. During that interview, AG San Nicolas told reporter Tina Sablan that he believed that Neal found out that Ogumoro would be piloting the boat when she boarded or was on her way to board the boat.
But that story conflicts with an explanation that Neal gave to KSPN in a separate telephone interview. KSPN reported that Neal disclosed that the Attorney General asked her to determine who would be operating the boat that Neal planned to take on her excursion to Pagan. As early as July 1st, two days before the July 3rd departure, Neal disclosed to the AG the fact that Ogumoro was the boat's pilot.
According to KSPN news, the Office of the Public Auditor's legal counsel, George Hasselback, contacted the Attorney General on July 1st to inform him that there were rumors that the OAG's chief prosecutor would be taking the trip to Pagan with the criminal defendant.
AG San Nicolas continues to defend his chief prosecutor, Shelli Neal, who also ironically leads the Inter-agency Task Force on Public Corruption and White Collar Crime.
Quid Pro Quo?
|Neal and Santos enjoying their helicopter ride back from Pagan|
Joey San Nicolas stated that he thought that the trip cost Neal a couple hundred dollars. Neal would not tell KSPN how much the trip cost her.
KSPN anchor, Tina Sablan reported that Neal took the boat to the northern island, but took a helicopter for the return trip. A boat to Pagan can be chartered for an average cost of between $6,000 and $15,000 or for a cost of about $1,000 per passenger, per day, according to KSPN.
The helicopter ride back is also costly. The 4 to 5 hour trip costs between $1,775 and $2,550 an hour for a total cost of between $8,750 and $10,200, according to rates obtained by KSPN.
"Americopter staff tell KSPN they transported government officials from Pagan to Saipan over the weekend. They say they didn't know the names of the individuals on board, but did say the trip was paid for by Carnotech. Carnotech is a private firm contracted by the military to perform environmental assessments. Neal did not respond to question on how her helicopter was funded or what relationship she has, if any, with Carnotech.
Other participants in Guihan Pacifika are Commonwealth Ports Authority Chair Benigno Sablan, former Lt. Governor Diego Benavente, and Michael Ogo, an aquaculture specialist.
At least a part of this trip was federally funded, which means that an investigation by federal officials cannot be ruled out.
In a press conference at their radio station, Santos and Sword answered questions about the trip. They joked and flippantly answered questions from reporter Tina Sablan. They revealed that that trip was funded by a $40,000 marine conservation federal grant that they were awarded by the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Guihan Pacifika was granted the money for exploring the feasibility of open water aquaculture.
Santos said that the boat trip cost about $3,000 - $4,000. They also paid for fuel and ice and made a deal that Ogumoro could keep the fish that was caught along the way.
Santos and Sword said that the decision to hire Ogumoro was based on cost. Santos laughed, "We choose the most affordable boat."
I would hope that most people who make decisions that weigh cost versus ethics would go for ethics, especially when so many of the decision makers are attorneys and should understand the conflicts.
Santos resigned from the OAG as chief prosecutor in 2010. Prior to that she served as a Republican member in the 16th House. Before that she was the assistant attorney general for three and a half years. She knows the law. She should have known that Neal's participation in a trip with a criminal defendant that she was investigating and prosecuting could jeopardize the case. This was a trip that took place in isolation, in tight close quarters away from the public. The ethical violations are obvious.
Santos also claimed that the helicopter ride back "was a gift." She refused to say why Neal was on the boat.
It seems that the cost of conducting aquaculture on Pagan would be logistically prohibitive based on rates of chartering boats and travel.
Since this trip was federally funded, Santos should be asked to document what the trip participants determined by "looking at locations where they could put cages", if they could grow the food there, and the investigation of tide flows and where the water goes" as they claimed was the trip's purpose. An investigation should determine what percentage of this trip was pleasure and what percentage was a logistical investigation for the grant.
Aside from the question of a chief prosecutor rubbing elbows with her criminal defendant, it is also an ethics violation for a public official to accept a gift. I assume that this includes $6,000 helicopter rides. Although AG San Nicolas previously stated that he believed that Neal paid $200 to $250 for the trip, the question of how much Neal paid for the trip is an important one that should be further investigated.
Guihan Pacifika is applying for other huge federal grants for their aquaculture endeavor, including an $800,000 grant from Health and Human Services, a $600,000 grant from USDA and a $230,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Interior. Cha-ching –over $1 million in federal tax money. I wonder how much more grant money will be given to criminal defendant Ogumoro for use of his boat?
In the KSPN interview, AG San Nicolas commented, "It, was unfortunate that there have been questions as to the appropriateness of her traveling to Pagan in a boat that's captained by a defendant. My response is that that is what happened She did not compromise in any way to perform investigation, or her credibility or her integrity. I am confident in that."
He sees the questions as "unfortunate" rather than understanding that it was the ethics violation that is "unfortunate". Not a very reassuring statement from the person who holds the highest legal position in the CNMI.
It appears that both Shelli Neal and CNMI Attorney General Joey San Nicolas have difficulty accepting that there was wrong doing and ethics violations in this incident. They appear not to acknowledge the damage that could be done to the criminal case and on going investigations, or the breach of public trust. Both should resign or be removed.