1 Aug 2017

Suspended Tokelauans slam Wellington over chopper saga

4:12 pm on 1 August 2017

Two Tokelau public servants suspended in April for their role in a controversial helicopter buy have spoken out for the first time, proclaiming both their innocence and foul play by New Zealand and Tokelau officials.

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Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

The purchase of two helicopters by Tokelau late last year caught New Zealand off guard and prompted its administrator to the territory, David Nicholson, to impose restrictions on its capital spending and commission a review into the purchase.

Although Tokelau and New Zealand have refused to identify the two individuals suspended following the review, the former Tokelau Public Service General Manager Jovilisi Suveinakama and Director of Finance Heto Puka have confirmed they are under investigation and have been suspended from their roles since April.

In a jointly-written statement, Mr Suveinakama and Mr Puka claimed Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) officials "have done a grave injustice to Tokelau's development" in intervening with plans for an air service and that members of Tokelau's leadership have been working to "destabilise Tokelau's development platform and assert their own agenda".

The pair said they had not been interviewed regarding their role in the purchase, despite having been suspended for almost four months amid an ongoing investigation by Tokelau's Commissioner, Casimilo Perez.

Mr Suveinakama and Mr Puka also hit out at former Foreign Minister Murray McCully, who in February told 1 News the purchases were extravagances and New Zealand would review its budgetary commitments to Tokelau.

They said this was an "untruthful, irresponsible and ambiguous statement" by Mr McCully.

"The least the Minister could have done at the time is to speak with Tokelau before stating publicly to the media what he mentioned. The Minister had a responsibility to the NZ citizens of Tokelau and he failed."

Mr Suveinakama and Mr Puka said the helicopters were part of a "Tokelau Air Services Plan", which was approved by Tokelau's government and involved the enlistment of "experts and technical people within the NZ Aviation Sector".

They said the helicopters were an essential part in remedying "torturous and unbearable" boat trips from Samoa to Tokelau and improving the quality of life on the atolls.

In a written statement, a spokesperson for MFAT said the ministry would not comment while the investigation into the helicopters was underway.

Ulu o Tokelau Siopili Perez told RNZ Pacific earlier this month the helicopters would be sold off to recover financial losses, but said air services were still on the table.

The recent General Fono revealed New Zealand had committed an extra NZ$750,000 (US$564,000) to Tokelau in ship-to-shore infrastructure and a new inter-atoll vessel for passenger transport and medical evacuations.

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