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Former Tahiti president on verge of fall

PAPEETE, Tahiti (Tahitipresse, Sept. 24, 2009) – In what would be the biggest blow of his 46-year political career, Gaston Flosse is on the verge of losing both of his elected political posts - that of French senator and that of French Polynesia Assembly representative - over a five-year-old sushi bill.That reality loomed Thursday following the Papeete Court of Appeals decision to uphold a lower court's recent sentencing of the 78-year-old Flosse to a suspended one-year prison sentence, a one million French Pacific franc (US$12,820/€8,380) fine and one year ban against holding public office.

Thus, the appeals court upheld a guilty finding on a charge that Flosse had misused public funds in Tahiti for a 2004 election night celebration for several hundred supporters with more than $30,000 in ordered sushi and Champagne. However, Flosse never got to celebrate because he ended up suffering the biggest political upset of his long career.

If the potential worst-case scenario plays out, the French Senate will have to schedule a by-election to fill the remaining five years in Flosse's second term. As for the French Polynesia Assembly, the person who finished 11th on Flosse's Windward Islands list of candidates for the February 2008 election of the 57 assembly representatives will take his seat.

Meanwhile, it is up to France's Conseil Constitutionnel (Constitutional Council) to formally record the Papeete Court of Appeals decision. This technical procedure could take anywhere from 15 days to several months. Once it is done, Flosse immediately loses his Senate seat as well as his parliamentary immunity.

The Appeals Court also upheld a prior court ruling in the same case, this one involving Marcel Tuihani, the treasurer for Flosse's party. The court upheld Tuihani's previous 10-month suspended prison sentence and a fine of 1.5 million French Pacific francs (US$19,230/€12,570). However, he was acquitted on a charge of embezzlement of public funds.

"This is an affair that we have mismanaged from the start," Tuihani said after the verdict was announced Thursday. "I did my job, and it was badly handled. " It was me," he said, who ordered the sushi and Champagne. "I accept my share of the responsibility.

"I never got up one morning saying, "I'm going to embezzle public funds. I don't blame Mr. Flosse," the party treasurer said.

Thursday's potential political blow to Flosse came in the court's ruling to make the ban, or ineligibility, effective immediately. That means that he faces losing both seats as soon as the court's official paper work is transmitted to the French Senate in Paris and the French Polynesia Assembly in Papeete.

The only thing that could possibly save Flosse's political career would be a favorable appeal to the Cour de Cassation in Paris, France's equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the Court of Cassation would not rehear Flosse's case, but only decide on whether the appeals court respected all of the required legal procedures.

Flosse's attorney did not immediately say whether he would be appealing Thursday's decision to the Court of Cassation. Flosse's defense was based on what he claimed was a disproportion between the facts he was charged with and the prosecutor's indictment.During one court appearance, Flosse's lawyer, François Quinquis, claimed that the facts of the case "speak for themselves". He added, "It's unimaginable to crown a career like that of Mr. Flosse's for some sushi dishes. I think it's not only disproportionate, but abusive, and I hope that this abuse of language does not conceal any abuse of power."

Flosse, who was in Paris Thursday, is also the focus of an unrelated ongoing investigation into alleged embezzlement of €1.5 million (US$2.2m) in public funds and bribery at the French Polynesia Office des Postes et Télécommunications (OPT).

What has become known in Tahiti's media as the "sushi case" dates back to the night of May 23, 2004.That was when then French Polynesia President Flosse was preparing to celebrate another election victory for control of the 57-seat French Polynesia Assembly, which elects Tahiti's president.

His pro-France, pro-Tahiti autonomy political party had ordered 2.362 million French Pacific francs (US$30,282/€19,794) of sushi and Champagne for the celebration.

But there was no celebration because pro-independence leader Oscar Temaru pulled off what became the biggest upset of his political career. While Flosse's party won 28 seats, or one short of an absolute majority, Temaru's coalition won 26 seats and then cobbled together a bigger coalition for a 29-seat absolute majority.

Since Flosse was the incumbent president at the time of the election, the sushi, Champagne and the rest of the celebration goodies went on the tab of the presidency.

That meant the new Temaru government had to pick up the tab. But the Temaru government did not take any action. It wasn't until after Flosse had toppled the five-month-old Temaru government in October 2004 that Temaru went to court against Flosse.

The Temaru government's civil suit against Flosse sought 2.362 million French Pacific francs in damages to cover the cost of the Flosse election night celebration.

Flosse was first elected to a nine-year term as Tahiti's only French senator in 1998. The Senate then adopted some reform measures, under which the terms of Flosse and some other senators were extended one year, while the length of the term was reduced from nine to six years.

Flosse was re-elected to a second term, this one for six years, on Sept. 21, 2008. This was the first election in French Polynesia that chose two French senators. The other senator is Richard Tuheiava, a member of Temaru's pro-Tahiti independence party.

Meanwhile, Flosse is due to return to Tahiti for an indictment hearing next Wednesday before Investigating Judge Philippe Stelmach. If indicted, it could mean a third attempt by the judge to obtain a lifting of Flosse's parliamentary immunity by the French Senate. If that were successfully done, Flosse could be held in custody in Tahiti's Nuutania Prison in between further questioning.

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