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OPA investigator testifies in Rota mayor’s trial

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OFFICE of the Public Auditor investigator Travis Hurst testified Monday that there was only one investigation launched in the cases filed against  Rota Mayor Efraim M. Atalig in federal court and in the CNMI Superior Court.

The investigation notes and other documents were then forwarded to the CNMI Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Hurst said in response to the question of attorney Steven Pixley, who represents the mayor’s co-defendant, Evelyn Atalig.

Hurst was one of the investigators who looked into Mayor Atalig’s travel authorizations “after an anonymous tip regarding  a large delegation from Rota that had flown to Guam to attend a political event.”

Pixley also wanted to know if the OPA investigator had shown his interview notes to the defendants for clarity.

“No opportunity to review the notes,” Hurst said.

Mayor Atalig’s lawyer, David Banes, asked the OPA investigator about his professional and educational background.

Banes wanted to know the cases that Hurst had investigated since the start of his law enforcement career.

Banes also questioned the “experience” that Hurst claimed he had in his applications for  Department of Public Safety and OPA positions.

Banes accused Hurst of “lying” about his actual law enforcement experience.

The court recessed at 3:10 p.m. Monday after Hurst’s testimony.

In a pocket brief filed late Monday afternoon, Banes said: “Defense evidence of mistakes or misconduct in the investigation will show that Mr. Hurst (and other government agents and investigators), whether wittingly or not, was biased against the defendants, and is still biased against them as a witness, such that neither his testimony, his reports, nor the outcome of his investigation should be trusted by the jury.”

The evidence, Banes said, including the video clips, should be admitted both for impeachment of Hurst and as substantive defense evidence in its own right.

Banes said Hurst omitted information tending to exonerate the defendants.

Banes said video clips of Hurst’s actual interviews with witnesses “do not correspond with his reports of those interviews, with the differences between them showing precisely the expected anti-defendant pattern.”

In addition, the lawyer said, the defense intends to “introduce the video clips and corresponding reports as examples of Mr. Hurst’s (and possibly other government investigators’ and agents’) bias” against the Rota mayor and Evelyn Atalig.

Banes said the U.S. government may object based on the so-called “collateral matter doctrine,” or some other similar theory. “But the objection should be overruled, because of the stated reasons, and the impeachment allowed, and the evidence admitted.”

The trial will continue today, Tuesday, at 8:15 a.m.

The Ataligs  have been charged with conspiracy, wire fraud, theft from program receiving federal funds, and two counts of false statements for arranging CNMI government-funded trips to California, Palau, Guam, and Saipan from Feb. 2018 to Aug. 2018.

The prosecutors are Assistant U.S. Attorneys Eric O’Malley and Garth Backe.

In a separate interview on Monday, Atalig said he is hopeful he would be cleared of all charges.

“I assure the people of Rota that I have not done anything wrong,” he added.

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