Cook Islands Ombudsman To Investigate Secret Fisheries Settlement

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Government denied CINews requests to make details public

By Phillipa Webb

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Jan. 19, 2015) – After a delay of five months the ombudsman has decided to investigate a CINews request for information from the Ministry of Marine Resources about a secret out of court settlement involving illegal fishing.

CINews has received a letter from officer of the Ombudsman Tearoa Tini about information relating to the out of court settlement over illegal fishing in Cook Islands waters involving an El Salvadorian fishing company.

Tini said the long delay in response since the initial complaint was launched had been because his team had been training with New Zealand counterparts while at the same time dealing with an ‘extraordinarily long-winded’ budget process.

Under the Official Information Act, the Ombudsman is authorised to investigate and review on complaint, any decision by which an agency subject to the OIA refuses to make official information available when asked.

Tini initially received a complaint from former CINews reporter Emmanuel Samoglou, followed by a subsequent fresh complaint from Phillipa Webb.

The complaint related to the refusal of a Ministry of Marine Resources official to supply information about the out of court settlement which followed the fishing incident. The incident dates back December 2013.

"I have decided to investigate your complaint. I have assigned your complaint to assistant ombudsman Jeannine Daniel," Tini said.

"As a first step in the investigation process, I have written to the Head of Ministry of the Ministry of Marine Resources Ben Ponia to notify him of your complaint – I have asked him to provide me with the relevant information at issue, together with a report on the decision on your request."

CINews sought the release of details concerning a financial settlement made over an incident involving an unlicensed foreign purse seine vessel, but the Ministry of Marine Resources denied the request.

Asked to provide reasons for withholding the information, included in a secret settlement reached between MMR and the government and fishing company officials from El Salvador, the vessel’s flag state, MMR Secretary Ben Ponia said "... there were good reasons to withhold the information."

"Your request for official information would be likely to prejudice the maintenance of law and is subject to an obligation of confidence," he wrote in an email on September 8.

Ponia said if the newspaper published settlement details, the Cook Islands government would be open to civil litigation by both the flag state and the purse seine vessel’s owner. He claimed CINews could also face legal action from the government for publishing the information. In response to Ponia’s threat, local lawyer Tim Arnold said the practice of making secret settlements could be constitutionally defendable – a statement that was backed up by legal advice obtained by CINews. The incident that sparked the battle over the release of information is believed to involve a purse seiner that fished illegally in local waters late last year after entering the Cook Islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone. According to the Marine Resources Act 2005, convictions made under the Act are punishable with fines between $100,000 and up to $1 million.

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