Deputy House Speaker comes to plea agreement in four-year-old case
Former Director of Human Social Services and current Deputy House Speaker Talia Fa’afetai I’aulualo has been fined and ordered to conduct 200 hours of Community Service as part of his six-month probation sentence, handed down yesterday. This follows a plea deal with the government, where Talia pleaded no contest.
Presiding over the sentencing hearing yesterday were Associate Justice Lyle L Richmond and Associate Judges Mamea Sala Jr and Muasau Tasina Tofili. Sharron Rancourt represented Talia while Independent Prosecutor Marcellus Talaimalo Uiagalelei was prosecuting.
Talia was initially charged with three counts of embezzlement, however in the plea deal with the IP, the embezzlement charge was amended to 'misuse of official information', a class A misdemeanor, punishable with not more than one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. The defendant entered a plea of no-contest to the amended count. A plea of no-contest is where the defendant neither admits nor disputes a charge, which serves as an alternative to pleading guilty or not guilty.
A no-contest plea, while not technically a guilty plea, has the same immediate effect as a guilty plea.
Rancourt noted that for the defendant, this decision was an emotional decision regarding a woman who was sick. She reminded the court that her client did not receive any personal gain from his actions, and further stated that the woman has already paid back the money she received from the leave that was approved.
The defendant noted his “sincere remorse” for his action and submitted a statement to the probation officer for the pre sentence report, which is a confidential report. He apologized to the court for what occurred. His wife also took the stand, and in tears, stated that her husband was a loving father, a great husband, and an honorable man who had no intention of defrauding the government that he loves. She pleaded with the court to allow her husband a chance to pursue his service to the community.
The prosecutor noted that although the defendant had not received any personal gain that does not take away the fact that the law was broken. Uiagalelei noted that he had found troubling information during the investigation of this case, given that other people were involved yet only one was charged.
Richmond noted that it's evident that the defendant had intended to help someone who was in a serious situation, however the court must send a message that this is not acceptable to the court.
The defendant was sentenced to one-year probation and fined $500. However, $300 was deferred and he was to pay $200 by 4 p.m. yesterday. The defendant was also ordered to undergo 200 hours of community service, and was sentenced to serve 15 days in jail; however, the court stayed the 15 days incarceration pending his good behavior and compliance with probation conditions.
According to the plea agreement, in support of Talia’s plea of no contest, the government proffers the facts that on or about Sept. 6, 2008, “Talia Faafetai Iaulualo, then Director of the Department of Human and Social Services with the American Samoa Government, in contemplation of official action by himself and in reliance on information to which he had access in his official capacity as Director, to wit the government’s payroll information and which had not been made public, knowingly aided Aualuma Pese — a terminally ill former employee of DHSS to acquire a pecuniary interest in government funds as salary in the amount of $1,279.19 to which the defendant believed she was not entitled to and to which the government still maintains she was not entitled.
“Upon court’s acceptance of defendant’s plea the government agrees to dismiss counts two and three (embezzlement) of the information,” says the notice of plea. “The government does not intend to seek any term of imprisonment for the defendant however, the parties are free to make their own arguments regarding other sentencing recommendations and the defendant also understand and accepts he will not be allowed to withdraw his plea of no contest should the court decree a different sentence than that recommended by counsel.”
Uiagalelei, responding to Samoa News queries on why the felony count was reduced to a misdemeanor, stated that while Mr. I’aulualo was charged with three counts of embezzlement, there were other considerations, which led to the reduction of the charges to a sole misdemeanor.
“Those considerations included the fact that he gained no benefit from his actions and the funds that were taken were eventually paid back in full by the individual who received them.
“But the most influential factor is that this matter has been pending for four years which greatly affected the recollection of some of the witnesses the Government intended to call for its case. Under the circumstances, the plea agreement accepted by the Court is in the best interest of the People" said Uiagalelei, adding, "Mr. I’aulualo was not acquitted for his role in what happened four years ago and I believe that the charge reflected in the plea agreement and which he has pled to, is appropriate considering all the facts and the current status of this case."