16 Mar 2021

Cook Islands current PM and former PM face fraud charges

3:09 pm on 16 March 2021

Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown and former prime minister and MP Henry Puna are facing charges of fraud and two counts of improper payment of public money.

Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna and his deputy Mark Brown.

Former Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna (L) and current Cook Islands PM Mark Brown. Photo: Phillipa Webb / Cook Islands News

Norman George, counsel for the prosecution, submitted that Brown and Puna conspired to arrange for two charter flights funded out of the public purse to travel to the northern islands of Penryhn and Pukapuka.

The flights uplifted the two winning candidates from those islands and returned them to Rarotonga to form a government after the June 2018 general elections.

The two winning candidates at the time are the current Deputy Prime Minister Robert Tapaitau and Associate Minister of Justice Tingika Elikana

The flights were paid for out of the Civil List budget which is managed by Parliament.

An email from then caretaker Finance Minister Mark Brown to the former Deputy Clerk of Parliament to arrange for the flights, was produced in court by the private prosecutor.

George submitted there was never a mention of bringing other successful candidates to Rarotonga.

The case is being heard by judge alone and presided by Chief Justice Sir Hugh Williams QC.

The charges have been brought about as the result of a private prosecution by Rarotonga resident Paul Allsworth who alleges around $US35,000 was paid for the flights.

Puna and Brown have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The prosecution has submitted a list of 19 witnesses to call during the trial.

The list includes a number of sitting Members of Parliament including Deputy Prime Minister and Penrhyn MP Robert Tapaitau, Pukapuka MP Tingika Elikana, and former Penrhyn MP Willie John.

Former MPs Teariki Heather and Kiriau Turepu are also expected to take the stand, along with Finance Secretary Garth Henderson and Acting Police Commissioner Akatauira Matapo.

Puna will be represented by lawyer Ben Marshall, and lawyer Tim Arnold will represent Brown.

The Cook Islands News reports the case was first brought before the High Court in 2019, when a private criminal proceeding was filed by lawyer Norman George on behalf of the case's former complainant Teokotai George.

Former Cook Islands Prime Minister, Henry Puna, was elected Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum in 2021.

Former Cook Islands Prime Minister, Henry Puna, was elected Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum in 2021. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

As with the current case, both Puna and Brown had pleaded not guilty, however days before the case went to trial the complainant instructed lawyer Wilkie Rasmussen, who had taken over the case, to withdraw his complaint.

As part of the charges, the two are alleged to have breached section 280 of the Crimes Act 1969 and s 64(2)(d)(1) of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management Act 1995-96.

The case is the latest in a number of trials presided by Chief Justice Williams this month that started last week, and intend to fill a backlog after a year-long gap caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.