LAWYER ARNOLD TOSSED OUT OF COOK ISLANDS PM WOONTON’S OFFICE OVER HOTEL

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By Jason Brown

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (March 29, 2002 – Cook Islands Star/Auckland)---Tim Arnold just smiles, eyes narrowing to a squint, when asked about being tossed out of the office of Prime Minister Dr. Robert Woonton.

Lawyer for landowner Pa Upokotini Ariki in the long running Italian ("Sheraton") hotel saga, Arnold makes no comment to rumors that he had a heated argument with Woonton.

Sources say Arnold had asked to see Woonton over his stunning announcement nearly two weeks ago that he wanted to see a one thousand room resort built on Rarotonga.

This announcement has thrown into sudden doubt the future of the ‘smaller’ 200 or so room hotel project on Pa Ariki’s land.

"He said it had been 18 years since the last time he was bodily removed from the office of the prime minister," says the source about Arnold.

Frustrations

Arnold is not prepared to talk about what was said in Woonton’s office. But he agrees there is frustration at Woonton’s announcement.

"Obviously Pa’s feeling quite frustrated," says Arnold. "She’s put a huge amount of time and effort in pushing things along."

Despite many years of setbacks – including a fair share of shady ‘investors’ who have come and gone – observers say a proposal by New Zealand’s Covington Group was the most realistic one they had seen in a long while. Along with a management contract under the much admired Hawai‘i Outrigger Hotels chain, there was quiet confidence that the hotel would not only finally get finished but also stand a good chance of success.

Arnold is not keen to comment on the specifics of how close they were to signing a contract. But he says that Covington along with other developers have always recognized "the need for a positive approach by government, whichever government it is, of the need to complete the Vaimaanga hotel.

"They are also conscious of the need to ensure that they themselves are viewed positively by the government. We’re still awaiting some unequivocal indication of the government’s position on both of these issues."

Doubt Sown

What kind of assurances can government make when it has changed its mind on details of the project so many times in the past?

"Recently, there’s been some doubt sown as to whether Covington would be welcomed by the government and some doubt sown as to whether completion of the Vaimaanga hotel is regarded as a priority by the government," Arnold said.

"Ultimately, it’s not for Pa to be satisfied by government assurances, it’s for Covington to be satisfied."

Arnold’s comments appear to point to some behind the scenes work by parties unknown to undermine the Covington proposal, either to replace it with something else, somewhere else, or just to shake the confidence of Covington enough that the project once again falls down.

Why that should be so remains a mystery at this stage, but one construction source says that announcement by Woonton could be a pie-in-the-sky baked by a jealous competitor left out of the Covington proposal.

They in turn point to recent publicity by Wellington based developer Tim Tepaki of the Tepaki Group, who has taken out two-page ads in the Cook Islands Herald, and five-minute-long advertorials on Cook Islands Television. Both media are closely linked with government.

Tepaki could not be contacted in time for this issue. However, in the past, Tepaki has proposed a number of developments for Rarotonga.

Along with some major construction successes in New Zealand, Tepaki has talked up projects that have yet to see the light of day. Not that this is proof. Any number of projects are proposed as a normal part of business. Few actually become a reality.

Speculative

Whatever the reality – or lack of it – behind the Woonton announcement, Arnold says he and his client are still hopeful the Covington proposal will succeed.

"We’d like to think that the government would embrace and encourage a developer on the site. And I’d like to think that the government would recognize that, in the minds of most people, completion of the Vaimaanga hotel would be a priority over their more speculative project.

"One would like to think that as long as there is an incomplete hotel of that size on Rarotonga, it is in fact going to be difficult to persuade any responsible or credible developer or financier that any other four or five star hotel should be developed on Rarotonga."

As Pa Ariki’s lawyer for the last eight years, Arnold must have seen his share of bizarre setbacks.

But he remains diplomatic in the face of what is the latest in a long series of moments of political interference at crucial times in attempts to complete the project.

"Pa’s principal concern is that the development of the hotel site proceeds as quickly as is commercially possible.

"Anything which sows doubt or uncertainty in the minds of overseas investors just makes what is already a quite difficult sell an even more difficult sell."

Smiles

Behind the squinty-eyed smiles, however, sources say Pa Ariki and Arnold are deeply angry at the Woonton announcement.

One says that Pa Ariki is bitterly disappointed to be sabotaged by a political leader who rose through a party her family has been linked to for literally decades.

Ironically, Woonton’s coalition partner, Norman George, commented just this week on "jealousy" in the homeland.

"The biggest and ugliest problem is our lethal ability to destroy each other," he wrote in his weekly column in the Cook Islands Herald.

"We would rather see foreigners succeed. We have great difficulty accepting some of our own to succeed."

And, as Pa Ariki and Arnold are yet again finding out, that’s hard to smile at.

For additional reports from the Cook Islands Star, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands Star.

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