15 Nov 2018

Tokelau elders aggrieved that investigation report withheld

4:37 pm on 15 November 2018

The release of a report from an investigation into the alleged misuse of millions of dollars of government funds in Tokelau has been delayed by a pending legal case, the territory's leader says.

Tokelau's Ulu, Afega Gaualofa and Faipule of Fakaofo.

Tokelau's Ulu, Afega Gaualofa and Faipule of Fakaofo. Photo: RNZ PACIFIC / MACKENZIE SMITH

It's been a year since Jovilisi Suveinakama and Heto Puka were fired from Tokelau's public service, over their role in the purchase of two helicopters and a property in Apia, which together cost more than $US9 million.

The pair were first suspended by Tokelau's government in April last year, on instructions from New Zealand, before they were eventually dismissed in November at the conclusion of an investigation in their conduct.

Since then, Mr Suveinakama and Mr Puka have launched legal action against the government, Tokelau's Ulu, or titular head, Afega Gaualofa and New Zealand's Administrator to the territory, Ross Ardern.

They allege they were wrongfully dismissed and made scapegoats by Tokelau's leaders, who allegedly authorised the expenditure, a view backed by analysts.

But the report produced from the investigation, which was produced by the appointed investigator, Aleki Silao, and reviewed by Commissioner Casimilo Perez, has yet to be made public.

The release of the report is now pending the completion of the court case, Mr Gaualofa said in an interview in Tokelau in September.

"Let the court decide all these things, and you're not going to drag me into [this]," he said.

A hearing has been set for February, but a venue has yet to be finalised, with the plaintiffs fighting for it to be heard in Tokelau, which would be a first for the territory.

Tinielu Tumuli

Tinielu Tumuli Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Mackenzie Smith

Call for release of report

The investigation report has become a politically charged item in the controversial case, with Mr Suveinakama and Mr Puka's allies in Tokelau calling for its immediate public release.

Members of the Taupulega, or council of elders, of Fakaofo atoll, which last year agreed to fund the pair $NZ50,000 towards their legal fees, have now demanded the former public servants to be reinstated.

Two elders told RNZ Pacific the decision to dismiss Mr Suveinakama and Mr Puka was improper because it was made before the Taupulega were given an opportunity to review the report.

"It's unfair for me to make a decision because a decision might depend on the report," said Safiti Vavega.

Safiti Vavega

Safiti Vavega Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Mackenzie Smith

The Fakaofo Taupulega had asked for the report to be provided to them by Mr Silao and Mr Perez, but had not heard back, said Tinielu Tumuli.

"The main issue for us is an issue of disobedience," he said, in reference to Mr Silao and Mr Perez.

"So, the decision against Heto and Joe to be dismissed should be reversed."

An open rebellion

Mr Gaualofa was not present when the Fakaofo Taupulega decided to grant legal costs towards Mr Suveinakama and Mr Puka and appears to be facing an open rebellion on his home atoll.

He would not rule out reinstating the pair, and said if the court ruled in their favour, then "obviously they did nothing wrong".

But the odds of a reversal of Mr Suveinakama and Mr Puka's dismissal last year are being gradually stacked against them.

In October, Aukusitino Vitale, a former private secretary to Siopili Perez, the Faipule of Nukunonu atoll, was appointed as the government's General Manager, a position last held by Mr Suveinakama, who has since found other work and is now based in Fiji.

Mr Vitale's "practical experiences and his ability to communicate in three languages, especially Tokelauan, meet the requirements of the position," Commissioner Casimilo Perez said in a press release announcing the appointment.

Mr Suveinakama, who is of Fijian descent, does not speak Tokelauan.

Mr Puka's former position of Finance Director had been advertised earlier this year but a replacement has not been found yet. It is currently occupied by Alan Shaw, who has been acting in the role since Mr Puka's was first suspended.

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