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Witness says government due process lacking

NUKU΄ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Jan. 26, 2010) - IN her first day of evidence the Chairperson of the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia Ltd (SCP), 'Alisi Taumoepeau, told the Ashika inquiry today that the SCP's recommendation to Government to purchase Princess Ashika for Tonga was based on information provided by Managing Director John Jonesse, which she now confirms to be inaccurate.

A former Attorney General and Minister of Justice of Tonga, 'Alisi told the inquiry in her view the disaster was caused by failure of governance in all levels in Tonga, but at the same time agreed that the Shipping Corporation is a part of that system.

She said it was a failure of the whole Tongan system in relation to conducting due process in all levels.

On being questioned by Assisting Counsel to the Commission Manuel Varitimos she confirmed her affidavit where she referred that Government failed to carry out proper due diligence and the procurement policy was not complied with when buying the ship. She also pointed out a failure of the Ministry of Transport who was responsible for proper checking of the vessels.

She also extended to the failure of the Ashika captain and crew and added they didn't they stand up and refuse to sail the ship when it was unsafe.

'Alisi who has been a chairperson for three years, agreed with the counsel that Company Secretary Lord Dalgety played a critical role in the SCP board and that he was involved in the board before her.

The counsel put to her that she relied on Dalgety to advise the Board on proper matters in company, and she said, yes.

"I referred to him as he was an admiralty law expert and a former judge and I depended on his advice." She confirmed Dalgety has a very high role in the SCP and spoke out his opinions openly.

She agreed that Dalgety offered opinions on decisions he thought were unsuitable.

"What do you understand your duty as chairperson is?" asked the counsel.

'Alisi answered there were many things to be done, records had to be kept, people had to be paid; the board was responsible for thatand she accepted that the board of Directors had a duty to exercise careful due diligence skill. The SCP was operating one vessel in 2008 the Olovaha, and in 2009 SCP recommended to Government to purchase Ashika.

The Chairperson confirmed that she had a copy of the Company and Shipping Act and was aware of heavy obligations on owners of vessels. She said the SCP operated the vessel and Government owned it.

"When SCP recommended purchasing Ashika did it consider it was the owner under the Act?" Varitimos asked.

She said no they did not consider this because SCP is a Public Enterprise and they were just managing the ship.

"Did you turn your mind whether you thought SCP was the owner?

She said it was not relevant at the time, the main issue was that the Olovaha was not seaworthy. She said it was of paramount importance to the Board to operate a safe vessel.

"That is why we recommended to Government that Olovaha was unseaworthy and to give us a new boat. And I trusted that all other due process in its purchase was carried out by Government, by the Minister to ensure its seaworthiness. If they did, it would have achieved this [safety]," said 'Alisi.

Under the Registrar of Ships in Tonga the owners of Ashika are stated Government of Tonga and SCP vessel, and 'Alisi said if that's what the law says then it is.

"When you made decision to recommend Government to buy the Ashika did you have in your mind that you were the owner under the Act?"

"Our decision was not based on this but on information provided to the Board by Jonesse that was the basis of our decision on the assumption that Government would carry out the proper due diligence, proper surveys and certification of seaworthiness. We were informed that was done and we recommended after," said 'Alisi.

She accepted that it is the Board's duty to act honestly and carefully in making decisions; and affirmed that when the SCP Board recommended purchasing the interim ferry it was under the knowledge that Government would buy it because they had no money.

"We manage Government ships; government bought it and gives it to SCP to manage."

"I suggest the amount paid FJ$600,000 [US$311,000] was relevant to be considered by SCP?"

'Alisi said that was for Government's decision.

"Are you saying as chairperson you were not concerned how much was paid for the vessel?

"I was concerned but that was Government to buy temporary ship as the new ship was being constructed in Japan."

She agreed with the counsel's submission that in relation to Ashika it was of critical importance to the SCP Board that it was reliable vessel, seaworthy, available to operate upon arrival in Tonga and would not break down.

She was asked whether by Christmas 2008 was she aware that SCP board formed the view that Olovaha needed to be replaced? She said yes they asked for a temporary vessel and they got the Ashika and it sank.

She said they did make careful decision based on the information provided to them. Jonesse gave the Board the information and claimed they only found out later that it was incorrect after the vessel sank.

Varitimos asked 'Alisi to explain why on November 5, 2009 in oath she stated that she never wrote any letter or emails as Chairperson, but she had written a letter to the Minister of Public Enterprise raising concerns on the Olovaha.

'Alisi admitted that she thought the counsel meant only to correspondence in relation to the Ashika. On November 5 she said she was told that she was only to be summoned and stood down for a later date. "I was taken by surprise and I thought you were asking about the Ashika. I have nothing to hide and I am here to tell you nothing but the truth," 'Alisi said.

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