Jurors hear closing arguments in Rota mayor’s trial

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JURORS in the trial of Rota Mayor Efraim Atalig and Evelyn Atalig started their deliberation Monday afternoon after hearing the closing arguments of the defense and the prosecution.

District Court for the NMI Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona, for her part, told the jurors: “You heard evidence regarding nine trips that the defendants took in 2018. Five of these trips are included in the indictment, the other four are not. The four trips not included in the indictment are: the January trip to Guam, the July trip to South Korea, and the two July trips to Guam.”

The evidence regarding these four trips is “other acts evidence” that was admitted only for a limited purpose, the judge said. 

“You may consider this evidence only for the purpose of deciding motive, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, absence of mistake, or lack of accident,” she added.

Rota Mayor Efraim Atalig and Evelyn Atalig in the hallway of the District Court for the NMI after a brief break from Monday’s jury trial. Photos by Bryan Manabat

The Ataligs are charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371; and with wire fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1343.

To convict the Ataligs, the jury must find that on June 6, 2018, the defendants knowingly participated in a scheme or plan to defraud, or a scheme or plan for obtaining money or property, by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises; and that the defendants acted with intent to defraud, that is, the intent to deceive and cheat.

Both defendants are also separately charged with making false statements.

According to the prosecution Mayor Atalig, and Evelyn Atalig falsely stated to a special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation that the purpose of their June 2018 trip to Guam was to meet with DLA Disposition Services (formerly known as DRMO).

Attorney David Banes, who represents Mayor Atalig, said in his closing arguments that the FBI and the Office of the Public Auditor failed to do their duty; failed to do their job properly; and failed to do a thorough investigation.

“They took shortcuts with the wrong person getting accused… This is a tragedy and it is a tragedy to the mayor,” Banes said.

He told the jury that no witness testified “that Mayor Atalig’s only purpose for taking any of these trips was personal.”

The prosecution, Banes said, has not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Mayor Atalig did not have any official purpose when he took the five trips mentioned in the indictment.

“The [U.S.] government also said [that the trips had no] value for the CNMI,” Banes said. “Who gets to decide, the federal government? The mayor has discretion, he was elected to do that…Even after he was indicted, he was running for re-election.  The people of Rota spoke. They had the chance to say, no, we don’t like the way you spend our money; we are going to throw you out. They didn’t; they voted for him again and he won. That is not why you should second-guess the decisions of an elected official,” Banes said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric O’Malley said there was ample circumstantial evidence that the Ataligs had an agreement. “We find that in the travel authorizations signed by Mayor Atalig for Evelyn,” O’Malley said. “We also see it in their identical trip reports.”

He said the wire communication in this case was the email from the mayor’s staff to Star Marianas booking the two charter flights on June 6, 2018 from Rota to Guam.

“When did it all begin? It began on June 4, 2018 when some Republican officials [Gov. Ralph  Torres, Lt. Gov. Arnold Palacios, then-Rep. Angel Demapan] from Saipan flew to Rota to meet with the Rota mayor. That same day, Mayor Atalig told his staff to make flight arrangements to go to DRMO on June 20 and 21, 2018. Out of all the days that they could have gone to DRMO, why that week, which coincided with a Republican rally on Guam?”

Attorney Steven Pixley, who represents Evelyn Atalig, told the jury that his client has no burden in this case. “She is not required to present evidence. The [U.S.] government failed in proving each and every criminal element of the charges against my client beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Last week Judge Manglona acquitted the Ataligs of the charge of theft from program receiving federal funds following a motion from the defense lawyers.

The jury trial started on Aug. 11.





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