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Prosecutor: Rota mayor’s case is about dishonesty, waste and abuse of power

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ASSISTANT U.S. Attorney Eric O'Malley on Friday said the government-funded trips taken by Rota Mayor Efraim M. Atalig and co-defendant Evelyn M. Atalig from Feb. 2018 to Aug. 2018 “have some element of dishonesty, some element of waste, and some element of abuse of power.”

The Ataligs have been charged with conspiracy, wire fraud, theft from program receiving federal funds, and two counts of false statements.

In his opening statement,  O’Malley said the investigation into the trips began after an anonymous tip was received regarding a “large delegation” from Rota that had flown to Guam to attend a political event.

O’Malley said the CNMI Office of the Public Auditor investigation revealed that Mayor Atalig signed the travel authorization for the Rota delegation and the stated purpose of the trip was to go to DRMO “in the interest of the CNMI government.”

DRMO refers to a U.S. Department of Defense office formerly known as the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office but is now called DLA Disposition Services. One function of this office is to sell surplus and used federal equipment. DLA Disposition Services has an office at Naval Base Guam.

O’Malley said the case at its core is about “trust and trips.”

“Trust because the people of Rota placed their trust in Mayor Atalig, they voted him in office, and in doing so they gave him a lot of power, a lot of responsibility.”

O’Malley said part of that responsibility is control over a bank account called Rota Impress Funds.

Rota Mayor Efraim Atalig poses for Variety during a break from his jury trial at the new federal courthouse in Gualo Rai on Friday. Photo by Bryan Manabat

“This is a fund initially created so that Municipality of Rota can have an emergency fund, so that any Rota mayor can act quickly if they needed cash, and they did not have time to run it through the central government on Saipan. Over time, this fund evolved into just general purposes fund over which Mayor Atalig had complete control,” O’Malley added.

“Mayor Atalig betrayed that trust by going on trips — lots of trips; nine trips in eight months.”

O’Malley said on the day of the DRMO trip, “14 people flew to Guam, part of them are government employees, two of them are children of those employees. That is not supposed to happen.  If you have government flights, only government personnel should be on that flight.”

And  “even though they made an attempt to schedule to go to DRMO,” O’Malley told the jurors, “you will learn that the true purpose of the trip was not to visit DRMO; the purpose of the trip was to attend a political event.  How do we know this?  Because they posted  the event on social media.”

He said the “most powerful” pieces of evidence are the pictures of the events and the campaign signs — these will establish beyond reasonable doubt that the purpose of those trips was to attend campaign events, O’Malley said.

He said there was something wrong on every single trip.

He added that there was a pattern in the “tricks they used in their trip reports — they made it appear like they attended something, but in fact they did not.

Attorney Steven Pixley, who represents Evelyn Atalig, stated that the whole investigation was a “nightmare” for his client.

“These are serious felonies that she did not commit,” Pixley said, adding that Ms. Atalig “should not be here.”

He said the investigators accused Ms. Atalig of lying.

Pixley said the “constant and loud interrogative questions from the investigators made” his client “whisper her responses to the questions.”

Addressing the jurors, Pixley said: “Ladies and gentlemen it was a shout of guilt and whisper of innocence.”

He noted that Mayor Atalig and Evelyn Atalig “are in a common-law relationship.”

Pixley noted that Ms Atalig, in some of the trips, did not receive per diem and paid for herself.

Pixley also added that his client was not charged in the CNMI case filed against the mayor and his resident directors.

“Ask yourself, ‘Why did…the [U.S.] government…charge Evelyn Atalig in this case?’” Pixley told the jurors. “You will hear evidence that she should not be here because she was charged to put pressure on Mayor Atalig to plead guilty.”

As for Mayor Atalig, his lawyer, David Banes, said the case is not about “lining of pockets.”

“Everything Mayor Atalig did was for Rota,” the lawyer added.

“On the charge of wire fraud, there has to be a specific intent to commit a crime, an intent to deceive or cheat. The evidence will show that Mayor Atalig always acted sincerely. He was trying to promote Rota. He has a sincere desire to promote Rota, and a sincere belief that what he was doing was good for Rota.”

Banes said travel authorizations that include per diem (car rental, meals, and room accommodations) are regulated.

“Eighty percent of approved TA’s are paid in advance prior to the trip. Twenty percent you will get when you submit the trip report — if [the Department of] Finance approves it,” Banes said.

He added that in four of the nine trips mentioned in the allegations, Mayor Atalig did not submit a trip report.

“What does that mean? It means you don’t get the remaining 20% of the per diem and Finance has the power to deduct the total per diem from your salary if you did not submit a trip report,” Banes said.

He did not submit trip reports for four trips so Finance deducted that from his salary, the lawyer added. “Four out of the nine trips, Mayor Atalig did not submit trip reports. Four times he did not do it. Is that the mentality of someone who is trying to game the system?”

The Ataligs’ jury trial will continue Monday morning.

 

 

 

November 2020 pssnewsletter

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