After days of jury selection, followed by the passing of Supertyphoon Hagibis, the trial of three former Guam Housing and Urban Renewal Authority commissioners accused of holding illegal government meetings away from public view is moving forward. The prosecution and defense delivered their opening statements Wednesday afternoon.
Former GHURA Chairman David Sablan and former Commissioners Cecile Suda and Roland Selvidge face misdemeanor charges related to alleged violations of the Open Government Law, conspiracy and official misconduct.
"Transparency in government - Guam's Open Government Law is premised on the simple assumption that people have the right to know what is going on with their government," Chief Prosecutor Basil O'Mallan said during his opening statements.
O'Mallan referred to two incidents. The first was an alleged closed-door meeting in which a decision was made on millions of dollars in federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, or LIHTC, in December 2011.
Five business applicants were considered for the credit. GHURA held a meeting in mid-December in which LIHTC was initially discussed, O'Mallan said. The meeting was adjourned and scheduled to reconvene on Dec. 27, 2011.
"However, as you'll hear in testimony from several people, on Dec. 26, 2011 - it's a government holiday, GHURA is officially closed - the board of commissioners, at Mr. Sablan's request, had what they call a working session. In this working session, a decision is made on who would receive the LIHTC award," O'Mallan said.
The next day, commissioners ratified the decision, he added.
The second incident occurred in April 2015, pertaining to a GHURA credit card, O'Mallan said.
"They needed to make some changes for the benefit of one of the board members and rather than meet in public like they're supposed to, they send out an email and they make a poll," O'Mallan said.
In that email, various board members check-marked that they agreed to a board resolution on the credit card, he added.
"After that, they then have a public meeting, where they again ratify the decision that had already been made. Once again, contrary to public law," O'Mallan said.
Attorney Curtis Vandeveld, representing Suda, said the Open Government Law requires notice when there is a government meeting.
"But the definition of a meeting under the Open Government Code does not include ... inspection of a project or a program" on a site, Vandeveld said.
Jurors will come to understand that the working session refers to the on-site inspection of a GHURA program at the main office in Sinajana, Vandeveld said.
The law does not place any limitations on the conduct that occurs during that on-site inspection, he added.
"Contrary to what the government charges, you will also hear there were five meetings or five times that the commissioners met," Vandeveld told jurors on Wednesday.
Jurors will also hear from Ray Topasna, Vandeveld said.
Topasna is a former executive director at GHURA but has since returned to the position under the Leon Guerrero administration. He is a witness in this case.
"He was fired by the board that existed in 2011 ... because of misconduct. Then he filed a lawsuit in federal court, trying to recover money so he can get a big paycheck," Vandeveld said. "This goes to his bias ... I am going to show you that he is biased and his testimony is colored by his own desires and his anger and frustration, which led to him suing the board."
Attorney William Bischoff, representing Selvidge, said the board had government-paid lawyers whom they relied on to let them know if they were in violation of the Open Government Act.
"And these government-paid lawyers never said, 'No, you cannot do that.' ... Whatever somebody may want to say now ... bottom line is these people had government-paid lawyers who were fully aware of what they were doing and never spoke up," Bischoff said.
One of the tax credits was awarded to Tower 70, which was partially owned by then-Gov. Eddie Calvo’s first cousin, Bob Salas, Topasna has previously alleged. When Tower 70 was unable to proceed with building low-cost housing, Core Tech, an affiliate of The Guam Daily Post, later developed the project after having received clearance from authorities to proceed.
The first witness called yesterday was Ronald Aguon, an attorney and assistant professor of public administration and legal studies at the University of Guam, who was one of the individuals who signed certificates of completion for ethics in government training given to Sablan, Selvidge and Suda on July 7, 2011.
Aguon confirmed on-site inspections of projects or programs are not considered government meetings and no public notice is needed, but could not define an inspection of a program.
"I've never crossed that as far as defining what a program is. I'm sure it's related to some kind of project," Aguon said in response to attorney Sam Teker, representing Sablan.
Aguon was also asked what he thought about a lawyer advising the GHURA board that no public notice is required for a working session as long as no quorum is required and no vote or deliberation on public business is conducted.
Bischoff asked the question, and although he appeared to frame the question as hypothetical, he was quoting an August 2015 email by a GHURA attorney.
"I would maybe be speculating, but if I were a board of commissioners and I needed to consult with my lawyer, I would rely on the lawyer's opinion," Aguon said.
Quoting the attorney further, Bischoff asked what Aguon would think of advice stating a working session is acceptable if commissioners wanted to meet informally and board actions and deliberation should only take place at a regularly scheduled board meeting.
"I really can't say for sure. Before I give advice, I have to thoroughly read the statute ... I have no opinion on that," Aguon said.