Cook Islands Chamber Of Commerce Calls For Fishery LIcense Overhaul

System where only Minister has power to issue licenses open to abuse

By Florence Syme-Buchanan 

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Sept. 22, 2016) – Long-held suspicions of corruption within the country’s foreign fisheries industry were recently proven correct and the government must take steps to prevent this from happening again, warns the Chamber of Commerce.

President Stephen Lyon believes the present foreign fishing, “one man” licensing regime, is weak and open to abuse by the one person who has exclusive power to sign off: the minister of Marine Resources.

Lyon says that must change if the country wants systems that are more accountable and cannot be abused by officials for personal gain. It’s widely believed that the recent conviction of former ministry of Marine Resources minister Teina Bishop for corruption could have been avoided had there been stricter licensing controls.

Bishop was convicted of receiving a monetary bribe in exchange for issuing eight foreign fishing licenses to Luen Thai Fishing Company.

Lyon says the MMR Bill in public consultation right now fails to address these issues. As does the current MMR Act.

And by leaving it unchanged, the country is left vulnerable to more corruption in fisheries licensing.

“I believe it (MMR bill) was drafted prior to the conviction of the former minister. Therefore we can forgive it for not covering these details. However, as it is still in draft I feel there is time to amend it to better reflect the issues that have now been proven.”

One recommendation is for the Cook Islands MMR Bill to remove the sole authority to license foreign fishing vessels from the minister and transfer it to a statutory board made up of individuals from government and the private sector with the necessary skills and experience.

Lyon agrees. He says apart from anything else, recent High Court events should indicate a need to review the legislation to also protect ministers and officials by reducing the opportunity for corruption.

Lyon adds this can be done by simply divulging powers to a committee or board rather than individuals – the minister licensing foreign vessels and

The MMR secretary licensing domestic fishing vessels.

“In the case of Marine Resources too much power resides with the secretary and the minister. This puts them at risk.”

Lyon goes further to say that as most powers sit with the MMR secretarythe position is often conflicted.

“The Act should separate responsibilities of licensing and enforcement so that any enforcement is fair, honest and without any bias. In other words, if the secretary of MMR is responsible for negotiating and signing into force license agreements, then the enforcement of the conditions of the licenses should be at an independent person’s final discretion.”

Lyon suggests this person could be the Commissioner of Police.

“MMR may still investigate, but reporting and final enforcement is managed by the Police rather than the secretary of MMR.”

He says this would protect the secretary from possible conflicts and make the process more transparent.

While Bishop was subjected to a three-year investigation and found guilty of bribery, the company that offered the former minister the bribe, Luen Thai Fishing Company, appears to have avoided any blame or official scrutiny.

Lawyer Reuben Tylor, who laid the complaint against Bishop that sparked off the intense investigation, says the issue is “quite complicated.”

“Common sense says that if Teina is guilty of taking a bribe from Luen Thai, then Luen Thai must be guilty of paying the bribe. But the law is never simple.”

Tylor said Luen Thai has not yet been charged with bribery by the police, for one very good reason – the Luen Thai executive who dealt with Bishop vanished off the scene long ago.

Tylor says in the meantime, police appear to be taking the position that it’s “business as usual”.

“MMR also appear to be taking the same position.”

He recalls being surprised at a recent meeting in Titikaveka to hear MMR secretary Ben Ponia say the Teina Bishop case proved MMR’s licencing system had worked properly.

“I told him I didn’t agree, and MMR apparently see no connection between Teina’s conviction for bribery and the issue of the licences.”

According to Tylor, if MMR thought otherwise and were motivated, they could simply refuse to renew Luen Thai’s licences at the end of each 12-month licence period and let the company decide whether to challenge this or not.

Tylor said it is possible that some action could be taken under the new Proceeds of Crimes Act. The law allows the Crown to confiscate assets acquired from proceeds of a crime.

This could extend to the eight fishing licenses granted to Luen Thai, possibly the proceeds of fish caught, and perhaps also ownership of the Aitutaki property purchased in part by Bishop and his partner with the proceeds of the bribe.

Cook Islands News
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The reporter who wrote this story is part of an anti-government campaign running out of the only daily newspaper in the Cook Islands. Much of her story is factually incorrect and based purely on speculation.

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