Court Strips Tongan Cabinet Minister Of Seat For Bribery, Corruption

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Lavulavu also overspent, failed to disclose spending on campaign

NUKU‘ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Jan. 29, 2016) – Tonga’s troubled Cabinet minister ‘Etuate Lavulavu today lost his disputed seat in Parliament when Lord Chief Justice O. G. Paulsen declared his election on November 27, 2014, as the People’s Representative for the Vava’u Constituent No. 16 to be void.

The Supreme Court found that Lavulavu had committed bribery on three different occasions and had overspent and failed to disclose spending on his election campaign in the lead up to the 2014 General Election.

The judgement was delivered at mid-day today, at the Nuku’alofa Supreme Court. It was the outcome of an 11-day trial of an election petition filed against Lavulavu by Viliami Latu that was heard in Vava’u in December last year.

‘Etuate Lavulavu, was currently serving as Tonga’s Minister of Tourism in the government of Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva.

[PIR editor’s note: On Feb. 1, 2016 RNZI reported that ‘A convicted Tongan cabinet minister says he will appeal against a Supreme Court ruling that found him guilty of bribery.’]

CJ Paulsen in his 91-page written decision said he found Lavulavu was not a credible witness, and on occasions he had reason to consider that he was being untruthful.

"While I do not neglect all that he has said, I consider that his intention throughout the trial was to dissociate himself from his own conduct and to obfuscate rather than inform. Often his evidence was simply implausible. His assertion that he stopped campaigning well before the election because he was certain he would win is an example. His answers to questions in cross-examination were evasive," said the judge.

Bribery

CJ Paulsen concluded that Lavulavu committed bribery and failed to disclose spending of $67,550.07 during his campaign for the 27 November 2014 Parliamentary Election.

The bribery on three different occasions was in breach of section 21(1)(a) of the Electoral Act 1989, firstly, when he gave registered electors of his constituency Mrs Melekiola and Mrs Lau’i a gift of $50; and secondly, a gift of $100 to Uinifou Fili and Sei ‘o Lepuha Weavers Group; and thirdly, $4,000 to the Leimatu’a Growers and Women Development Association.

Overspending

In his return to the Supervisor of Election Lavulavu declared that the amount he spent on his election campaign was $6,360.

Under Tonga’s Electoral Act Section 24 (1) a candidate should not spend more than $10,000 Pa’anga in his or her election campaign.

However, it was found that Lavulavu’s spend had amounted to $73,910.07 during his campaign when he constructed roads and gave gifts and prizes to his electorate.

During the hearing it was confirmed that 'Etuate spent $19,550.07 on fuel for trucks to transfer coral from quarries and on wages; and $48,000 on coral rocks.

CJ Paulsen also found that the Vava’u Road Works Council Inc. had no part to play in the road works and there was evidence that at the time the road works were being undertaken, that Lavulavu claimed them as his own and as part of his election campaign.

"The allegation that he spent more on his campaign is proved and he did it knowing and intentionally," he said.

Void

The Chief Justice declared Lavulavu’s election on November 27, 2014, as the People’s Representative for the Vava’u No. 16 Electoral District void.

"Pursuant to section 37 of the Electoral Act 1989 I shall certify this result to the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly," he told the court.

Three Cabinet Ministers including the Minister of Justice, Minister of Revenue and Minister of Health were present in court to hear the judgment of their fellow Cabinet member

William Clive Edwards was counsel for the plaintiff Latu, while Sifa Tu’utafaiva was counsel for Lavulavu.

Two seats vacant

Parliament resumes sitting on Monday, February 1 and two seats will now be vacant in the House.

'Etuate is the second MP to lose his seat in the Tongan Parliament this year because of infringement of the electoral process, after Mateni Tapueluelu, the PR for Tongatapu Constituent No. 4 was unseated by the courts.

‘Etuate has also caused an upheaval in the Tongan Parliament during the first year in office when he faced a motion for his impeachment as the Minister of Infrastructure and Tourism. The motion was signed by civil servants in the Ministry of Infrastructure in Vava’u, claiming mismanagement of government assets.

While a standing committee of the House concluded that there was case for impeachment, but somehow the House managed to vote against the impeachment.

The Prime Minister, Hon. ‘Akilisi Pohiva justified the decision to save Lavulavu, by stating that the majority of the House wanted him as the Prime Minister to make a decision on what to do with Lavulavu.

PM Pohiva then "punished" ‘Etuate Lavulavu by declaring that he was no longer responsible for Infrastructure, and he would only be the Minister of Tourism, but without pay for a month from January 1.

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