Chief Prosecutor's Fishy Trip Linked to Federal Grant Funds

July 10, 2013

Chief Prosecutor Shelli Neal
It is becoming more evident why CNMI Attorney General San Nicolas is standing behind chief prosecutor Shelli Neal's unethical decision to engage in a fishing (or fishy) trip to Pagan on a boat owned and piloted by Ambrosio Ogumoro, the criminal defendant that she was charged with prosecuting.

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.

Since the Attorney General knew that Neal would be taking a 5-day trip with her criminal defendant, he could have told her about the ethical impropriety and explained the conflict of a prosecutor taking a trip with her criminal defendant. He should have expressed concerns that taking the  trip could jeopardize the Ogumoro case and investigations, He could have stopped her from taking the trip. He did not. It appears that neither of the attorneys saw any wrong doing with the arrangement or they ignored it.

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
KSPN also raised another ethical question. Who paid for the trip to Pagan? Was Neal given a discount or special rate?  If so, wouldn't  that also be another major ethical violation?

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.

KSPN reported:
"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.
Also on the trip was Neal's friend, Rosemond Blanco Santos, president of Blue Continents Communication, Inc. (KKMP Radio Station), her husband, Gerhard Sword, and former OAG Investigator James Ayuyu.

Santos, a community environmentalist, invited the media to a press conference yesterday sponsored by Guihan Pasifiku. Guihan Pasifiku decribes itself as "a local indigenous non-profit serving the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) community and focused on large scale aquaculture research."

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.


Anonymous said...

Ogumoro can keep the fish ? Of course he can Rosemund it's his fu^&^&ing boat! That boat is the absolute worst place for a couple of pampered city girls - sea sick anyone ? No wonder you two took a helo back. Being stuck on an old bucket like that would drive anyone into a dry heaving wreck. BTW going to sea with the defendant that you are going to prosecute is absurd and very stupid. It's the same thing as going fishing with a couple of Russian business partners who aren't happy with you.

Anonymous said...

It seems these people have not learned from what happened to the ex LT Gov Tim Villagomez.
Lying, cheating, and scamming is the way of life for a select group living in the Islas de Ladrones. One wonders if it will ever end.

Anonymous said...

The focus on former armorer and Deputy DPS Commissioner Ambrosio Ogumoro is a red herring, an example of Guilt by Association, the Politics of Envy, and snide Character Assassination unbecoming anyone who undertakes to lead a Life of Virtue.

If Rosemond Santos engaged Ogumoro for her grant-funded expedition, that does not create an impermissible relationship on the part of Shelli Neal. The Chief Prosecutor received no gift or gratuity from Ambrosio, and as long as she has no subjective disinclination to do her job, there is no ethical conflict. If an AAG somehow does perceive herself as less likely to follow the law due to personal relationships (such as mutual membership in the Saipan Hash House Harriers) then the prosecutor will recuse herself.

As a matter of law, without more, the vessel operator - passenger relationship creates no bar to prosecution.

The more relevant issue is whether Ms. Neal accepted an impermissible gift from Ms. Santos. However, in calculating the worth of the trip, the fair market value may not be the appropriate measure. Santos and Sword were going on the trip anyway. That was a sunk cost. Thus, the only additional expense to them was the marginal cost of an extra body on the boat -- food, extra gasoline consumed, etc.

If Shelli did pay the estimated cost of that, perhaps $200 or so, then she received no gift from Ms. Santos and there was no ethical violation. Ms. Neal is a criminal prosecutor, not a civil attorney. Thus, it would not be surprising if she got approval for the trip in advance, reviewed by an OAG civil lawyer.

The helicopter ride seems to have been a last-minute change, perhaps as a result of sea sickness, or maybe opportunity.

The same value analysis applies as to marginal additional cost. However, as with all short-notice decisions, this may be the part of the trip that comes closest to running afoul of CNMI ethical laws, though again, there is still much unknown information and possible extenuating circumstances.

It is unfortunate how some people are so eager to assume the worst in their fellow human beings.

Anonymous said...

1:13 No, it's not a red herring. I's a matter of propriety, ethics and of a public officials doing their job and not compromising cases and investigations. I get that you want to defend the indefensible, but there's no defense for this situation. The AG isn't competent. Shelly Neal isn't competent. The NMI deserves better. We can't keep letting public officials who think they can do whatever they want stay on the payroll. Kick 'em the hell out and get some ethical bodies in positions of power. The OPA investigates this and the feds should check out the grants.

Anonymous said...

The first part of this whole thing is illegal by chartering that boat.
The "Captain is not a US Coast Guard licensed Captain to be able to "take passengers for hire" and the boat is not certified for charter. Also that vessel was more than 25 mile offshore there are many more safety requirements along with equipment that is required. That is a Fed violation and violater is subject to a very large fine and also jail time.
The US Coast Guard should be involved in this.

BTW according to the CNMI Bar association Santos is listed as inactive, not that it makes any difference in this case.

Anonymous said...

I knew Joey and wife very well and he is not very ethical and also does not have the experience to be in the position that he is in now as AG.

Also Shelli has only been first licensed to practice law from 2005 in Texas. She also is an immature lawyer and by being in the NMI and under the corrupt Gov. and AG's it looks like she has no concern or has lost any reasoning on what is ethical or legal when it involves certain names in the NMI.

Wendy Doromal said...

5:38 You raise a good point. Should federal grant money be spent on chartering a boat that is not up to certification, licensing and/or regulation standards?