Governor Benigno R. Fitial's midnight massage by a federal detainee is turning into exactly the sort of public relations nightmare I expected.
Just when the local media's boilers were losing steam, CNMI Assistant Attorney General David Lochabay has moved to quash the subpoenas** to testify at the Feb. 17 evidentiary hearing. The U.S. Attorney's Office will likely oppose the motion; there may even be a pre-hearing hearing. That should stoke the fires for a few more news cycles.
And we still don't really "know" more than we did a few days after the Marianas Variety broke the story. "Sadly, it is hard to imagine how anyone connected to the incident could avoid the derision and stigma of the public after this media assault," Lochabay writes in the motion. True enough, but the brand is self-inflicted. I truly sympathize with any one experiencing severe back pain. But, really? A masseuse, charged with human smuggling?
Lochabay also suggests that the hearing is nothing more than a fishing expedition for evidence of crimes based, it seems, on Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric O'Malley's somewhat neutral response to a reporter's question that "It's way too early to say that. Even if there were, I won't tell you."
Oh, and "agents of the Federal government have already interviewed" Corrections Commissioner Dolores M. Aldan, Lochabay added.
That brings up an interesting issue, assuming that the hearing goes forward. As Lochabay points out "the Commonwealth was, and is, in a decidedly awkward position, being a prime party in interest (Indeed, the real party in interest as it was the Commonwealth's responsibility to maintain custody of Ms. Cheng)"
That wouldn't be much problem for the three Corrections officers, but there is a real possibility of a conflict-of-interest concerning the Commissioner and the Governor (To a lesser extent, based on what we "know" from media reports) if the line of questioning marches into a legal minefield.
So, my train of thought runs exactly opposite to those saying these officials shouldn't be represented by the CNMI Attorney General. In an informal hearing such as this, what's wrong with the AG handling the preliminaries until the feds have tipped their hand? If it gets sticky, it may be in some people's interest to seek their own counsel.
And the media can fire up their boilers again.
* "(This trip to the Governor's house is, hereinafter, the "incident")." -- David Lochabay's motion
** I was looking for news about this motion in the Saipan Tribune, but no luck. Fortunately, Wendy at Unheard No More is all over these court papers-- I stole her link. (The uncharitable have been trashing the Tribune for its coverage. Unfairly, I think, just because they didn't get the original story.)