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Public Defender resigns, office left understaffed and underfunded

Former Public Defender, Douglas Fiaui  [photo by AF]

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The future of the Public Defender’s office is now in limbo. The Director of the office, Douglas Fiaui officially resigned from his post last week, while another assistant public defender will be leaving the office on June 12 on completion of her 2 years contract.

Acting public defendant Michael White declined to comment when Samoa News approached him last week about Fiaui’s resignation and what the PD’s office operation looks like for the rest of this year.

PD’s office now has three attorneys remaining in the office to handle their criminal calendar. One attorney is handling the High Court calendar, and that attorney will be leaving next week on a 4-week leave. He will be back in the office by June 15.

The second attorney is handing their District Court calendar, while the third attorney deals with Juveniles cases, and that attorney is leaving the island on June 12 when her contract expires.

Fiaui’s resignation shocked the PD’s office. His resignation came four days after Chief Justice Michael Kruse issued an Order to Show Cause (OSC) on why Fiaui shouldn’t be held in contempt of court for not fulfilling his duties as an officer of the court.

Fiaui is currently off island on a 12-week vacation while two of his clients are appearing in High Court for jury trials, and the court has continued both matters because of Fiaui’s absence.

His office received his resignation letter on Monday last week, and copies of the letter were delivered to Gov. Lolo M. Moliga and the Director of the Department of Human Resources on Tuesday, while the third letter was delivered to the Kruse on Wednesday.

Once Kruse received the copy of Fiaui’s resignation letter, he immediately quashed the warrant for an OSC hearing that was issued for Fiaui.

How the office will proceed at this time is not known. An individual who is familiar with the PD office’s operation told Samoa News that the office needs to hire more attorneys and staff but they don’t know how this going to happen, as there is the question of who has the authority to make these types of decisions.

In addition to the need to hire more attorneys to continue the office’s operation, there is a need to hire a secretary because the office secretary retired recently.

Further, the printer is not working, attorneys have to bring their own laptops to do their work because almost all of the office computers are not working, and attorneys also have to provide their own paper and printing ink.

“The office is now in limbo because the acting PD can't do anything. There’s a shortage of attorneys and there is a need to hire more staff,” the source said.

Efforts to obtain a comment from Fiaui were unsuccessful. A staff member who is not an attorney told Samoa News that Fiaui is on a 12-week maternity leave with his wife, but not on vacation as the court was told two weeks ago.

The Governor’s executive assistant, Iulogologo Joseph Pereira confirmed to Samoa News over the weekend that, “We have received the letter of resignation from Counsel Fiaui.” Because he has not yet seen the content of the resignation letter, Iulogologo says he couldn’t comment further as to the reason for the resignation.

According to Samoa News archives, Fiaui was appointed by Lolo as public defender in the beginning of 2013 and was confirmed by the Fono the same year. He has often testified before the Fono on issues concerning the Public Defender’s Office, including its lack of resources to do its job well. One of the issues he pointed to was the office being understaffed — not enough lawyers — with the amount of cases coming before the Court.

He also noted the lack of rehabilitation programs for the youth of American Samoa and the likelihood of young offenders returning to the court system over and over again.

Fiaui also told faipule during a hearing that while rehabilitation is a critical aspect, what happens in reality is that young offenders don’t received their education from the local education system but from the criminal justice system.

He said that he sees some who have become used to being arrested, that they no longer consider it a bad experience — it becomes normal for them to be in jail.