PM Tu’i’onetoa defends conflict of interest, says it’s “OK”

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PM: Conflict of interest is fine as long as good outcome is achieved

By Kalafi Moala

Nuku’alofa, Tonga – The fight against corruption in the Kingdom of Tonga has taken a turn to the worse possible scenario when the Prime Minister, Rev Dr. Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa, has given an explanation to a Tongan newspaper, that conflict of interest is not a concern for his government.

“What is important,” he says, “Is that the job is done well, and cheaply, saving government millions of dollars. And it does not matter if you are giving the job to your brother, as long as he does the job well.”

The interview with the Prime Minister by the Tongan language, New Zealand based newspaper, Kakalu ‘o Tonga, was a shock to many people. Prime Minister Tu’i’onetoa, in what looked like an angry reaction to criticism of conflict of interest in his government sounded annoyed as he said that what was important in securing government contracts for companies doing road works, was not whether there are any family ties to Cabinet Ministers, but that the companies can do the job at the lowest price, and they can finish the job well.

You do not need to be a professional psychologist to conclude that the Prime Minister was trying to justify conflict of interest involving his Ministers. He has just given full fledge approval to acts that signals corruption, “as long as it is cheap, and the job can be done well.”

This is a huge moral lapse for a Prime Minister who is also a church minister (a Rev.) and has a Doctorate of Ministry (a degree in religious ministry). And this is his latest response and justification for accusations of conflict of interest.

But much of the criticism of the Prime Minister’s road works is not just that this is a campaign ploy in an election year, but the process of granting contracts to companies who bid for the job was questionable at best, and corrupt at worst.

There are three companies that have been awarded contracts for the massive and expensive road works planned by the government, estimated to cost $300 million and to be carried out over a period of 2-4 years.

The Prime Minister or his Minister of Finance won’t say where the money is going to come from for this massive road works; the biggest ever planned for Tonga.

Two of the companies contracted are owned or led by people who have direct familial connections to two Ministers in the Cabinet.

Inter Pacific Limited is one of these companies, and have direct connection to the Minister of Infrastructure, Akosita Lavulavu. Akosita’s husband, ‘Etuate Lavulavu has been announced as the CO-CEO of the company.

The company has an interesting history. It was first registered on 1 March 2016 with license number 9006128. The shareholders were ‘Etuate Lavulavu, Paula Kava, and Taniela ‘Amanaki. Lavulavu was the Minister of Infrastructure (MOI) then in the Government of ‘Akilisi Pohiva.

On 23 April 2020, there was an amendment made to the shareholding structure of the company. The name of ‘Etuate Lavulavu was replaced by Sateki Vehikite, a person who worked for Lavulavu. And then three weeks later on 5 May 2020, there was another amendment with the name of ‘Inoke Vala, a close friend of Lavulavu, replacing Vehikite.

The PAK political party, which is Chaired by the Prime Minister, and Lavulavu as Deputy Chair, and chief operator, was established already by late 2019, before the Rev. Dr. Tu’i’onetoa won the ballot for Prime Minister in Parliament.

When challenged why Inter Pacific was awarded a road works contract when it is a company belonging to ‘Etuate Lavulavu, and the Minister whose jurisdiction is over the road works was his wife, Lavulavu publicly denied he had anything to do with Inter Pacific.

He said it was not his company; it was ‘Inoke Vala’s. But now it has been revealed that Lavulavu runs the company as the CO-CEO.

The other company in question, that was awarded contracts for the road works is owned by the son of Lord Nuku, Faka’osifono. It is Island Dredging Limited. Lord Nuku is the Minister of Police, and a prominent member of the PAK party.

The question of conflict of interest in these two companies being awarded contracts has been a thorny issue in the side of Government; particularly at a time when they have been pointing fingers at the previous Government for conflict of interest and practices of corruption.

The Prime Minister has publicly brought up that the previous Government of ‘Akilisi Pohiva, awarded contracts to a company owned by the Sika family, Five Star Construction. Semisi Sika, MP for Tongatapu 2, was Deputy Prime Minister in the previous Government. But the current Prime Minister held the powerful portfolio of the Minister of Finance and National Planning in the previous Government.

It was his department that supervised the procurement process which not only selects contractors according to the required criteria, but also approves financing. It was a case of the right hand blaming the left hand for being part of the same body!

What is a conflict of interest?
The dictionary explains conflict of interest as “a situation in which the concerns or aims of two different parties are incompatible.”

Another dictionary explanation is that it is “a situation in which a person is in a position to derive personal benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity.”

To put this in context, the following should have taken place: Akosita Lavulavu resigns from her job after questions about a possible conflict of interest. And the same should have applied to Lord Nuku because of his son’s company being awarded a road works contract.

It is quite interesting yet most appropriate, that at the time when this writer was going over the explanation from the Prime Minister justifying the apparent conflict of interest of road works contracts, I received a document from a Government department, which has sought my consultancy in an area of expertise. Among the sheets of paperwork I had to go through and sign, was a page on “Conflict of Interest Declaration”.

I had to declare to the best of my knowledge that I do not have: Any personal financial interest including the supply of goods and services in the institution I was providing consulting service.

The declaration went on to state that I need to declare any relatives or friends with financial interests in the said institution, including employment or the supply of goods and services.

The declaration also wanted to ensure that I was not in affiliation with any other provider who could be construed as a competitor of the said institution. And then finally, there was no personal bias, inclination, personal obligation, allegiance or loyalty which would in any way affect my decisions in relation to the institute I was in consultation with.

This became quite clear that as far as the government system was concerned, conflict of interest is a serious issue, and had to be declared, and acted on before engagement.

This flies against the face of misleading and false explanation from a Prime Minister who instead of admitting wrong doing, would rather justify it in order to save face for his alleged criminal friend Lavulavu.

This was illuminating as it shows that conflict of interest is something that has been established as wrong and must not be tolerated in government. Yet the Prime Minister has chosen to ignore it, and intentionally breach not only traditional best practice but also the violation of moral principles in the process.

Trying to justify wrong doing

In fact, Prime Minister Tu’i’onetoa emphasized in his explanation that he does not see contracts being granted to family members of Cabinet Ministers as conflict of interest, “as long as the end result of the work to be done is the best that could be achieved.”

He also said that what government is concerned about is getting companies that can provide services at the cheapest prices, “because it will save millions for the country.”

Lavulavu is the man, the Prime Minister is defending on several fronts, as he is not only a convicted fraudster, but also has two court cases that are yet to be heard, with criminal charges of fraud.

The argument by the Prime Minister in defense of the criticism of conflict of interest, not only for Lavulavu’s Inter Pacific Ltd, but also for Lord Nuku’s connection to Island Dredging, has brought an incredible realization in the kingdom, the extent corruption practices has become normalized.

And the Prime Minister has not only led in the defense of wrong doing in his government, but also promotes conflict of interest. He said: “Companies that can do the job cheaply are limited, but there is nothing illegal in what we’ve done. It’s OK.”

“If its my brother that can do the best job cheaply saving millions, why should we not get the job done by him just because he is my brother? Or do we let the patient die just because there is a conflict of interest?” such is the reasoning of Rev. Dr. Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa.

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