28 Sep 2018

Trouble abound in Tokelau as NZ investigation into alleged corruption stalls

11:01 am on 28 September 2018

An investigation into allegations of corruption in Tokelau has been stalled by a backlog of unaudited government accounts, adding to a growing basket of governance woes facing the New Zealand territory.

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Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

Serious concerns were raised about the conduct of a former Tokelau public servant in 2015, more than two years before they were fired for allegations of unrelated misconduct.

These were shared with Tokelau's General Fono, or parliament, as well as New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) and Auditor-General but have yet to prompt an official investigation.

The Office of the Auditor-General has been unable to investigate because the financial statements for the period have yet to be audited, a spokesperson told RNZ Pacific.

The concerns, which were raised by Mario Volk, Tokelau's Finance Director from 2013-2015, largely centre on the conduct of Jovilisi Suveinakama, a former General Manager of Tokelau's public service.

Mr Suveinakama had been in the role since 2007 but was dismissed in November last year after a probe into the spending of millions of dollars of government funds on property in Samoa and two helicopters found Mr Suveinakama acted without proper approval. A legal case in now pending over his dismissal.

"The concerns that I raised predated the helicopters and the land issues," Mr Volk said in an interview this week.

"There will be other issues because New Zealand has not insisted and has not put in place good governance and sound financial management practices."

The concerns

In December 2014, Mr Suveinakama received a $NZ15,000, or 14 percent, salary increase, which was approved by a Tokelau cabinet minister but violated a government-imposed freeze on any pay rises in the public service, according to letters Mr Volk sent to the General Fono.

Suspended public service manager Jovilisi Suveinakama

Suspended public service manager Jovilisi Suveinakama Photo: sprep

Mr Suveinakama also authorised salary increases to three employees in Tokelau's government, including his wife Lise, who works as a legal advisor, the letters said. As well, he approved $US3,500 in daily allowance payments to Ms Suveinakama she was not eligible for.

Mr Suveinakama and Ms Suveinakama did not respond to emailed requests for comment. A friend of the couple told RNZ Pacific they had read the emails.

Tokelau has a population of 1,500 spread across three atolls, and it is common for multiple members of the same family to occupy positions in the government at a local and national level. Its size means the public service is the largest employer in the territory.

After the concerns were shared internally with Tokelau's government, Siopili Perez, the Finance Minister and Ulu, or head of state, at the time, initially agreed to an independent investigation, but then scrapped the plans, Mr Volk said.

Mr Volk's contract ended in May 2015 and was not renewed by Tokelau's government.

The whistleblower

In July 2015, Mr Volk sent the letters to the General Fono, requesting that it demand a full and independent investigation and "consider placing the portfolio of Finance with another Minister".

Calls to Tokelau's government offices in Apia and the offices of the Taupulega on Fakaofo and Nukunonu atolls, where Mr Perez and Ulu Afega Gaualofa reside, went unanswered this week.

In September 2015, Mr Volk wrote to the Office of the Auditor-General, outlining his concerns and asking for an investigation to be launched.

"There may be reasonable grounds for all of the governance and management powers that the Administrator has delegated to the three Tokelauan Taupulega to be immediately revoked," he said.

Five months later, Sarah Lineham, a sector manager for the Auditor-General, wrote back to Mr Volk, saying no action could be taken because Tokelau's financial statements had not yet been audited, but the issues would be considered as part of the audit.

"Thank you for sharing your concerns and supporting information with us. We understand the strength of your concerns, the seriousness of the allegations you have raised, and why you have approached us with those concerns," Ms Lineham said.

Tokelau's acting Finance Director Alan Shaw, who undertakes the audits, declined to comment.

An MFAT briefing in May last year, obtained under the Official Information Act, said the backlog was due to be resolved by March this year.

An spokesperson for the Ministry did not address specific questions regarding the auditing process but said it is committed to improving financial management in Tokelau.

"MFAT and its staff take its responsibilities around financial stewardship very seriously. We have no tolerance for corruption or the misuse of public funds," the spokesperson said.

An MFAT briefing in July for Ross Ardern, New Zealand's Administrator to Tokelau, before the General Fono meeting that month, shows the Ministry was working to "address concerns raised by the Auditor General".

NZ renews presence

Wellington has become more involved in Tokelau's financial management in the fallout of Mr Suveinakama's alleged offending in 2016, which led to his dismissal last year, going as far as to draft veto powers over government spending and restrictions on how New Zealand funding is released.

But critics say it has not moved fast enough and has failed to take responsibility for a territory it has administered since 1926.

"The accountability for this poor performance should be laid at the feet of both the leaders of Tokelau and New Zealand MFAT, but particularly New Zealand because they are the overarching governors of Tokelau," Mr Volk said in an interview this week.

The letters submitted to the General Fono were tabled by the Taupulega, or council of elders, of Atafu atoll, to be heard at its July 2015 meeting, he said.

That meeting was cancelled over concerns of a dengue fever outbreak in Apia, but sources told Mr Volk the real reason behind the move was to prevent the letters from being discussed.

The next meeting was held in October, by which point the letters had been withdrawn.

Instead, a "fact-finding" mission was launched by two officials who would report internally and not to the General Fono, Mr Volk said. It is unclear whether this went ahead or what the result was.

Unresolved legal action

The fresh claims come as Mr Suveinakama is suing Tokelau's government, Ulu Gaualofa, and Mr Ardern, New Zealand's Administrator, over his removal from government last year.

Former finance director Heto Puka, who replaced Mr Volk and was fired alongside Mr Suveinakama, is also a plaintiff in the case.

A hearing before the High Court at Tokelau has been set for February next year. A previous iteration of the case sat in the High Court at Wellington but the plaintiffs are fighting for it to sit in Tokelau, which would be a first for the territory.

The pair have been granted $NZ50,000 towards their legal costs by the Taupulega of Fakaofo, which is effectively funding a lawsuit against a government it is represented in.

The case has caused political division in Tokelau, and in recent months the territory has amended its constitution to empower the Taupulega and put in place checks and balances for the government, amid fears its leaders were acting out of turn.

It has also become a lingering and embarrassing problem for New Zealand, after Jonathan Kings, a senior official in MFAT, ordered Tokelau to suspend Mr Suveinakama and Mr Puka in April last year, before their eventual dismissal.

MFAT is understood to be providing legal assistance for Mr Ardern and the other defendants.

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