Tokelau’s helicopter purchase investigation explained
The Tokelau government-sanctioned investigation into alleged “significant unauthorized capital purchases” that include two helicopters will officially close at the end of this week.
The lead Investigator, Mr Aleki Silao confirmed his final report will be handed over to the Commissioner of the Tokelau Public Service (TPS), Mr Casimilo Perez, on Friday, 22 September 2017.
With major areas of the investigation completed, Mr Silao was able to address some of the confusion that have resulted from various reports by international media outlets including comments by the two suspended officials under investigations and their legal team.
“To help some of the people that have been confused by some of these media reports, I will explain how the investigation first came about, and the process for how the investigation was carried out. Although I cannot reveal specific details about the investigation, as procedurally that call is not mine to make, and legally, the report has not yet been signed off, the real information provided should clarify issues for the mis-informed and confused,” said Mr Silao.
“Firstly, let me say that the issue of air service for Tokelau is not new. It is a topic that has been an ongoing discussion for many years, and still is, between New Zealand and Tokelau. However, the purchase and acquisition of two helicopters in late 2016 caught both New Zealand (NZ) and Tokelau leaders by surprise.
“Given the seriousness of the situation, Tokelau’s legislative assembly, the General Fono, called on the Public Service Commissioner for a Commission of Inquiry into the matter. However, this was vetoed by New Zealand through the Administrator of Tokelau, who is the statutory head of Tokelau and the only official who had the legal powers to call a Commission of Inquiry. At the time that was Mr David Nicholson, who was also New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Samoa.”
According to Mr Silao, the Commission of Inquiry would have been the ideal body to look into “this very important national matter as it would have brought together a panel of independent legal experts including, possibly, retired judges from NZ . But that would have been a relatively expensive exercise for the sake of legal knowledge and process.”
With the Commission of Inquiry vetoed, the Executive, which governs Tokelau when the General Fono is not in session, called on the Commissioner for the Public Service, Mr Perez, to conduct an Investigation into the alleged serious misconduct related to the alleged unauthorised capital purchase of the two helicopters. The Commissioner also decided to include the multi-million dollar hotel property at Matautu, Apia that was recently bought by the Government of Tokelau.
The recently established Office of the Public Service Commission (2016) is staffed by Mr Perez, and advisors Mr Aleki Silao and Mrs Hina Puka.
The first action taken by Mr Perez was to suspend two senior officials, Mr Jovilisi Suveinakama, and Mr Heto Puka. At that time, Mr Perez said, “the two are suspended with full pay and entitlements pending an investigation into allegations of serious misconduct”, and added that the suspensions “do not constitute disciplinary action and does not imply any assumption that they are guilty of any misconduct.”
Mr Perez then appointed Mr Silao to head the ‘Investigation’.
Mr Silao was well suited to the role being a former Commissioner for the Public Service in the 1990s under the New Zealand State Services Commission. He also became the only choice as Mrs Hina Puka is the sister of one of the suspendees and therefore could not be considered.
In taking up the assignment, Mr Silao enlisted the services of a prominent lawyer and current President of Samoa’s Law Society, Ms Hellene Wallwork.
“Ms Wallwork is not only one of Samoa’s top-flight lawyers but she has a special connection with Tokelau. Her grandfather, James Wallwork, was lost at sea on the ill-fated Joyita sailing on 3 October 1955.”
The investigation was conducted mainly on the Rules of the Tokelau Public Service and its Disciplinary Procedure.
“However, the perceived slow progress in our investigation has been due to the lack of information within the Tokelau government system. We had to wait on information available only through New Zealand that were critical to following our lines of inquiry. Once we finally received those pieces of information, we are now able to finalise our report.”
Mr Silao also pointed out an important matter in the investigation process.
“At the start of the investigation, the two employees were made aware of their obligations, together with the terms and conditions of their suspension,” he said.
“They were informed that they must not disclose any confidential information or knowledge regarding the affairs of Tokelau’s official business and its employees. That all public service employees are obligated to behave in a manner that is unlikely to bring the Tokelau Public Services into disrepute.
“They must not communicate with any employees, contractors or customers of the Public Service unless authorized by the Commissioner. And they are required to co-operate in our investigations and may be required to attend the workplace for investigative interviews.”
As a result, during the course of the investigation, the salaries of the two officials were discontinued when they did not comply with a legal request to attend interviews on the island of Atafu.
“We reserve the right to change or add to these allegations as appropriate in light of our investigation,” Mr Perez said at the time.
At the completion of the investigation, the individuals and their legal counsel will be provided with copies of the Report and invited to comment on its content at which time, “the Commissioner will then consider their views before a decision is made,” said Mr Silao.
He concluded by responding to the New Zealand-based legal counsel for the suspended officials who measured progress of the Investigation as being incompetently carried out.
“Welcome to the World of Tokelau,” said Mr Silao “A distant territory of New Zealand, which is trying to straddle traditional and western systems of justice. A little revision of the Inverse Square Law and being on the boat sailing around the three atolls will be a lesson worth experiencing. Perhaps even gain small learnings such as the correct spelling of Tokelauan names.”
Tokelau is a non-self-governing territory of New Zealand. It is located in the Pacific Ocean north of Samoa and south of the Equator (9 00 S, 172 00 W). It is only accessible by boat, taking an estimated 28hours to reach the closest atoll, Fakaofo, a further three hours to Nukunonu, and another six hours to Atafu.
It is made up of the three small atolls named above, separated from each other by high seas. The total land area is approximately 12 km². The total sea area of the exclusive economic zone is approximately 518,000 km². The height above sea level is between 3-5 meters, the maximum width is 200 meters. Tokelau is therefore particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and impacts of climate change such as sea-level rise.
The population of 1499 (2016 census) is spread approximately equally among the three atolls (Atafu (541); Fakaofo (506) and Nukunonu (452). The traditional lifestyle was subsistence but Tokelau has moved to a cash economy. The only natural resource of any current economic significance is the fishery of the exclusive economic zone.
Tokelau has no main town; each island has its own administrative centre, hospital, school and basic infrastructure. There are no airstrips or harbours. Access is by ship only, through the Port of Apia, Samoa.
There are approximately 7000 Tokelauans living in New Zealand, and smaller communities live in Australia, American Samoa, Samoa, Rapa Nui, and Hawaii.