SUVA, Fiji (Feb. 14) - Pacific Connex was always doomed to be a troubled entity. It is a joint venture owned by the business arm of the Native Lands Trust Board and Fiji-born computer entrepreneur, Ballu Khan's Tui Consulting Limited.

[PIR Editors Note: According to PIR news files, Pacific Connex and Carribean-based firm Digicel are bidding for a license to operate mobile phone services in Fiji and take on Vodafone's monopoly on the market. The military raided the office of Pacific Connex as well as the home of its chief executive in December.]

It has not filed company returns (as it is legally obliged to) since 2001. And now there appears to be some evidence that the Native Land Trust Board has guaranteed some or all of its liabilities.

The Native Land Trust Board derives whatever money it can call its own from the poundage charged on rents it receives on behalf of landowners. This is intended to cover its administration costs. However, if there is money left over to invest in high-risk business ventures, then it is clear the poundage should be reduced and that left over money distributed to the landowners.

If, on the other hand, the money to support Pacific Connex's commitments comes from the trust fund, something more serious is amiss. For that money is held in trust. It belongs to the landowners, not to the board.

Indeed, the Pacific Connex saga brings into question the very need for the Native Land Trust Board to have a business arm or be involved in commerce in any way - particularly in the fiercely competitive arena of supplying computer services.

The board's core function is to administer the orderly leasing of native land while holding rents in trust for distribution to the rightful owners of that land. It has no mandate to invest its own (or other people's) money in business ventures. And nor should it.

No doubt the Native Land Trust Board management thought this was a fine idea that would bring in more revenue, though where that revenue might have been destined is far from clear. Certainly none has gone back to the landowners, though there is a very real possibility that some or all of it has gone to private individuals and institutions.

Now the chickens are coming home to roost. The deal that this newspaper warned against more than two years has gone full circle and the innocent landowners are likely to be the losers. And the tragedy is that it's probably too late to do much about it.

Nevertheless, the military's clean-up team needs to establish whether an unsecured loan of a very substantial sum of money was made to an individual connected with Pacific Connex and, if it did, where that sum of millions of dollars actually came from. That would be a start, at least. Then it could go on to explore the political involvements. The public really deserves to know what happened here.

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