TAHITI POLITICAL LEADER JAILED FOR ALLEGED FRAUD

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PAPEETE, Tahiti (Tahitipresse, Dec. 5) – Emile Vernaudon, mayor, political leader, former French deputy and Tahiti government minister, was remanded in custody to Tahiti's prison around midnight Tuesday in connection with a judicial investigation into the management of the French Polynesia Office des Postes et Télécommunications (OPT).

The mayor of Tahiti's north coast Commune of Mahina (population 14,369), Emile Vernaudon—who turns 64 on Saturday—is one of three persons under investigation and one of two remanded in custody.

Alphonse Teriieroiterai, OPT board chairman during the period under investigation, was also remanded in custody, and Natacha Taurua, vice president of Vernaudon's Ai'a Api political party and former government minister, was placed under judicial control in connection with the same case.

The charges against Natacha Taurua stem from when she was president of the "Dauphin Bleus" (Blue Dolphins)—a pro-Vernaudon political association that received significant government subsidies.

Vernaudon, a former French National Assembly deputy, is under investigation for alleged embezzlement of public funds, misuse of public funds by a government official, theft, forgery and use of forgeries.

The public prosecutor, Jean Bianconi, argued for putting Vernaudon under custody to avoid pressure being applied on his subordinates while the investigation is continuing. However, the prosecutor said he was not opposed to Vernaudon being released from prison "if light is quickly shed on the case".

But Vernaudon's lawyers said they were upset by the prosecutor's assessment, accusing Bianconi of intending to conduct a political trial.

They said there was absolutely no merit to remanding Vernaudon in custody. And they claimed that the maneuver had another alleged objective, that of removing Vernaudon from the political scene a little more than a month before what is already shaping up to be one of French Polynesia's most highly charged elections ever held.

It was at midnight exactly that a judge had Vernaudon placed in custody before he was taken before the public prosecutor and then before the examining magistrate in charge of the investigation.

Only then was Vernaudon transferred to Nuutania Prison to spend the rest of the night.

The dramatic event in the politician's 28-year career occurred three days after his political party met Saturday to reconfirm its endorsement of the candidacy of former French Polynesia Government President Gaston Tong Sang.

The mayor of Bora Bora in the Leeward Islands, Tong Sang, is heading a pro-France, pro-autonomy list of candidates for the Jan. 27 first round of voting for the French Polynesia Assembly's 57 representatives.

The judicial investigation stems from a report just recently handed down by the French Polynesia Territorial Audit Chamber, known by its French initials of CTC.

This report deals with the operation of the OPT between 2002 and 2006, with particular emphasis on the period from March 2005 to May 2006. That was when Vernaudon was OPT minister during the second government since 2004 of pro-independence party leader Oscar Temaru, who is now back in power for the third time.

The OPT, operating a public telecommunications monopoly, is in charge of French Polynesia postal and fixed telephone systems. And through its affiliates it runs French Polynesia's mobile (cell) phone system (Tikiphone) and satellite television network (Tahiti Nui Television), which offers a 24-channel bouquet of channels, including CNN.

The "government commissioner", an independent judge with the CTC, found numerous alleged illegalities based on the CTC report to warrant submitting a dossier to the public prosecutor's office. Prosecutor Bianconi opened a judicial inquiry on Oct. 17.

Bianconi told a recent court hearing that 114 million French Pacific francs [US$1.43 million] in expenditures, "essentially personal", were allegedly made during Vernaudon's "sumptuous" trips overseas.

The prosecutor claimed the money was allegedly spent under the guise of misleading mission expenses. They allegedly ranged from boat and helicopter rentals, purchases of video and computer equipment that cannot be found today.

The prosecutor also talked about government subsidies given to Mahina associations "at levels never before reached".

Under questioning, Teriieroitrai, OPT board chairman at the time, said he had been acting on Vernaudon's instructions. However, Vernaudon denied that accusation.

The prosecutor also argued, "Mr. Vernaudon has confused" for an already long period of time his personal assets and public funds. He added that the politician was today in "a state of legal recidivism".

He was referring to Vernaudon's scheduled Papeete Appeals Court appearance on Thursday in what is known as the "Tautira land" case.

Meanwhile, Ms. Taurua, a former French Polynesia culture minister in Temaru's second government since 2004, is under investigation for alleged possession of embezzled public funds and misuse of public funds.

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