April 24, 2006

By Jessica Chapman
The Kaselehlie Press

The wheels of justice are grinding in the FSM. The closely scrutinized prosecution of sitting and former congressmen- all hailing from the state of Chuuk - on corruption, conspiracy and theft charges has dealt and been dealt some blows in recent weeks.

The multi-defendant case, originally filed in November 2003, alleges 32 counts of misuse of public funds and other corruption charges, including conspiracy to use government funds for unauthorized purposes. Together, they accuse defendants of the theft of more than $1.2 million in government funds from 1998-2003.

In a triumph for the prosecution, former FSM Sen. John Petewon and four other residents of Chuuk were convicted April 11 on criminal conspiracy charges by the FSM Supreme Court trial division in Weno. Each faces up to 10 years of imprisonment and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and restitution for the offense. Sentencing will take place in June.

Petewon, who currently serves as an associate justice on the Chuuk State Supreme Court, served the FSM Congress from 1997-2003. Further, another defendant, former Sen. Simeon Innocenti, pled guilty last month to charges of medical fraud contained within the suit. The former senator acknowledged using representational funds to pay nearly $30,000 in personal medical bills.

According to the DOJ, which prosecuted Innocenti, this marks the first time a sitting or former FSM official will serve jail time for an offense, a landmark. Innocenti was sentenced April 4 to serve eight months in jail and to reimburse the government upwards of $20,000. As a result of his plea, remaining charges against him were dropped. Innocenti served the country's legislative body from 1991-2003.

In addition to Petewon and Innocenti, the case also levels significant charges against current sitting FSM Sen. Roosevelt Kansou as well as his wife and five businesses administered by various combinations of the defendants. However, a setback to Kansou's prosecution leaves a major portion of the case still pending.

In early March, Kansou's defense filed a motion - recently upheld by presiding Justice Richard Benson - to disqualify the entire DOJ from prosecuting Kansou, his wife Memorina and their business, EM-R. The motion alleges unauthorized involvement of a former prosecutor in the case as well as communication concerning a possible plea agreement between FSM Attorney General Marstella Jack and Kansou without the presence of Kansou's counsel.

A dash to the DOJ's credibility, the office has been severed from Kansou's prosecution pending further arrangement.

Last week, the office responded by filing a motion seeking reconsideration not only of the disqualification of the present DOJ but also the disqualification of the former prosecutor, Matt Crabtree.

The motion contends the unintentional nature of its actions and seeks reinstatement of its prosecutors to the case. Should the motion be denied, a special prosecutor will have to be appointed to prosecute Kansou, which, according to the DOJ, could pose a hurdle to the speedy prosecution of the Kansous or even allow prosecution to be avoided altogether.

Kansou, an FSM senator since 1995, is a central figure in the case, named in 20 of the 32 counts. He is also the only defendant formally charged with corruption. Scott Garvey, Roosevelt Kansou's court-appointed attorney, declined to comment as the case remains pending. Secretary Jack was unavailable for comment.

Prosecution of remaining businesses cited as defendants remains outstanding pending retainment of counsel on their behalf. One defendant, Frank Cholymay, has failed thus far to appear before the court. Justice Benson was appointed as temporary justice for Justice Dennis Yamase, who recused himself from the case. Benson earlier served as an FSM supreme court justice.