By Kalafi Moala
Nuku’alofa, Tonga – The scandalous saga at the Tonga Power Limited (TPL) continues to unveil accounts of drunkenness and sexual activities at the company’s facility, denials and false justifications of wrong doing, vicious vengeful personal attacks on staff members, intimidation, and harassing behaviors from Board members, betrayals, selective justice, and leadership hidden agendas with the appearance of political manipulations.
If the list seems long, it is not. The mess at TPL is getting messier, and it is already high time for those that are responsible for overseeing one of Tonga’s most profitable companies, to step-up or step-out. There needs to be some accountability and transparency from the new Board of Directors.
This follow-up story from our first installment sheds light on the hidden agenda that has led to the dismissal of key employees at TPL.
First, the scandal at Tonga’s only power supply company, revolved around a young married mother’s alleged sexual activities at the facility of Tonga’s power supply monopoly. Add to it that she and her partner, and another person, came to the facility drunk. Her gross misconduct, in accordance with her employment contract, earned her dismissal on Friday, 19 June 2020, by the old Board of Directors. She was given three months pay, and other cash benefits for severance. This disciplinary action by the old Board, under Chairman Dr. Sitiveni Halapua, was carried out under legal advice from two prominent lawyers, Dana Stephenson, and Petunia Tupou.
The new Board, chaired by Dr. Aisake Eke, in a move that showed they did not agree with the decision by their former predecessors, re-employed the offending employee, Ms. Sosefina Maileseni. This has brought about widespread discontent among the staff of TPL. Why she was re-employed in the face of so many contradicting factors was one of the reasons for the petition letter written to the Prime Minister. An increasingly non-transparent Board of Directors did not respond to the staff concerns.
This is one of the key issues that precipitated the staff’s petition letter to the Prime Minister, Dr. Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa, who is also the Minister of Public Enterprises. He is the ultimate authority that oversees all public enterprises including TPL.
Secondly, while more revelations of the sexual misconduct have surfaced, Ms. Sosefina in denying the charges went on a rampage at TPL making wild accusations of misconduct at some of the employees. Thirty-nine staff employees to be exact, were targets of this vicious attack campaign of baseless and false accusations. One employee describes it as the unleashed fury of a woman who felt rightly or wrongly to have been spurned by her company.
Sosefina admitted later, it is reported, that she did this in anger not caring who among the staff would be harmed by her accusations. She was doing it to get to Steven Esau, Acting CEO and General Manager of Finance. She wants him out. And this is where the plot starts getting interesting, for it reveals that the new Board may or may not be using Sosefina’s dilemma to remove ‘Esau from his position. Sosefina is strongly supported, for one reason or another, by Deputy Chair ‘Ipolito Lasalo and Board Director Seinimili Tu’i’onetoa Fonua. And even though her allegations have been found baseless, the new Board of Directors has decided to give credence to her charges, as they re-employed her.
Much of the false allegations that were the basis for the suspension of four staff members from TPL including the Acting CEO and General Finance Manager came from Sosefina. It is quite shamefully apparent the Board of Directors accommodated complaints from Sosefina about her dismissal by the former Board, as well as her side of the story about other staff members. But the new Board ignored the 39 staff members who were falsely accused, and did not give them an opportunity to voice their complaints, or at least listen to their side of the story. Again, the plot thickens as the spotlight of the happenings at TPL starts shifting from Sosefina to the Board of Directors.
Substance of the petition letter to the Prime Minister
The Board only became concerned about staff discontent when they found out that a petition letter was sent to the Prime Minister. The actions they took was not to try and resolve the issue of discontent or to address the concerns expressed in the letter. They seemed only interested in trying to identify who were the instigators of the widespread discontent, and especially who were behind petitioning the Prime Minister with their concerns. They wanted to stop and punish those who were leading in the dissension. They were selective in who to listen to, and in the end, they bought into some of the wildest and false accusations ever leveled at the TPL staff.
The petition letter asked for two things to be considered by the Prime Minister: to cease the re-employment of Sosefina Maileseni, and to remove Deputy Chair ‘Ipolito Lasalo and Director Seinimili Tu’i’onetoa Fonua from the Board. The letter pointed out that these actions by the Board would resolve the problem of discontent, dissension, and low morale at TPL.
It is cited by the staff recommendations that Chair of the Finance and Audit Subcommittee, ‘Ipolito was not only disruptive but “bad for the company”. Wages of staff need not be reviewed without a major alteration to the employment contract of each employee. The staff is reported to have been “looked down and talked down to” by ‘Ipolito “in harsh language.” They feel unappreciated and threatened, creating a culture of fear, hostile work environment, intimidation, and low morale at TPL.
The staff letter suggested that an independent body be brought in to do the review that ‘Ipolito’s subcommittee has done. And also called for a representative of the workers to be part of the review subcommittee to bring their voice to the decision makers.
Another issue objected to by the workers was the suggestion to remove CEO Seti Chen from his position. He is currently in New Zealand under lockdown due to COVID-19, yet he has been doing work for the company while there, especially in the effective negotiations for assistance from New Zealand, Australia, ADB, EU that could benefit Tonga Power to the tune of over $100 million.
Mismanagement at TPL has been blamed by the Board members as reason for the current lower financial position in the company without giving any evidence. The Auditor’s Reports of the past two years clarify the current situation, as the company faced a situation in the deficit created by the difference in fuel costs and fuel revenue over the past two financial years (2017/18 – 2018/19), amounting to $9 million. The diesel fuel costs of the 2019/20 year has been further under-recovered as by the end of the financial year, the Government subsidy of $1.7 million has not been paid. However, the 2019/20 dividend of $1.9 million has been paid by TPL, as well as income tax of $1.2 million.
There is an Electricity Commission separate from TPL and holds a concession agreement with the Power Supplier. The Electricity Commission is the regulating body of the power industry in Tonga. It sets the price range of electricity, as well as the power tariffs both for fuel and non-fuel components. In layman’s language, TPL carries out the regulations set by the Electricity Commission.
The staff letter also points to the feedback from aid and developing partners like MFAT (NZ), DFAT (Australia), ADB, EU – that things are running well at TPL, and there’s effective performance by workers in accordance to agreements and budget plans.
How the Board of Directors reacted
In a panic move to try and contain the apparent dissension among the staff, the Board focused their attention on their person of interest, Acting CEO Steven ‘Esau. He was blamed with three other high-level staff for instigating the dissension and the writing of the petition letter to the Prime Minister.
One main charge for the disciplinary action, which later followed, were that these four employees were planning to initiate a strike among the employees. And the other allegation was they were also planning to shut down the power supply of the country. But these charges were found baseless. Close examination of the petition letter reveals not a shred of evidence a strike was planned or a threat to shut down Tonga’s power supply.
New irrefutable evidence has come to light that the Board of Directors of TPL has targeted Acting CEO, Mr. Steven ‘Esau, to be dismissed from the company. The Board is alleged to have concluded what they want to do with Mr. Esau, and were just witch hunting for a reason to justify his dismissal. Mr. ‘Esau who has worked in management in the company since its inception in 2009, was suspended on 30 September with pay, pending an investigation on charges that have been proven baseless.
How a Board of Directors deemed intelligent to provide oversight duties to one of the most important services in the kingdom mishandles the staff situation is unbelievable. And to come up with serious charges based on hearsay or created by their own imagination is at best unprofessional and at worst, silly.
In fact, the reason for the staff’s petition letter to the Prime Minister was because they felt the Board of Directors did not give them a hearing for their concerns. At the same time, Chairman of the Board, Dr. ‘Aisake Eke, admitted to the media that had they come to the Board they could have settled the problem “in house.” But the Board is not on record to have offered a hearing to the discontented staff.
At the centre of new revelations uncovered at the TPL are two Board members who have pushed for the dismissal of Steven ‘Esau, and who were strong advocates in the re-employment of Sosefina. These Board members are ‘Ipolito Lasalo, Deputy Chair, and Director Seinimili Tu’i’onetoa Fonua. Written documentation and personal witnesses attest to this fact. Both ‘Ipolito and Seinimili are key members of a subcommittee headed by ‘Ipolito. It is the Finance and Audit Subcommittee which reviews staff wages, and hatches policies that staff felt would have damaged relationships and work morale.
The so-called offending petition letter to the Prime Minister written and signed by up to 70 staff, ended up with only 39 signatures because many were afraid of losing their job if they were known by the Board to have been part of the petitioners. Reports from among the workers confirmed that someone commissioned by the Board had gone around inquiring as to who had signed the letter. A culture of fear and retaliation was quickly developing at TPL.
Three of the suspended employees signed the letter, but Steven Esau not only did not sign the letter, his name was not on the list of those who supported the petition. However, the Board of Directors accuses and blames the four suspended employees as instigators of the discontent among the staff.
But the Board has gone on to further complicate things, proving a hidden agenda that is quickly coming to light. Instead of restoring the suspended employees to their jobs, and admitting that the charges were false and baseless, they have extended the suspension another 14 days. And here is the new twist: they have come up with a new charge. It has to do with the recommendations in the letter that the decision to re-employ Sosefina be reversed, and that ‘Ipolito and Seinimili be removed from the Finance and Audit Subcommittee as well as the Board of Directors.
Those were recommendations by the petition letter as solutions for moving forward. The Board has now come back to those suspended, charging them as offensive and a contractual infringement in suggesting a review on Sosefina’s re-employment, and the removal of ‘Ipolito and Seinimili from the Board. The suspended employees are now being punished for exercising their right to appeal to the Prime Minister with their concerns.
Tonga Power Limited to revert to centralized operation?
But another critical issues that face TPL is the apparent expression of intent and recommendation by ‘Ipolito that TPL revert back its structure and operational mode to the old body of Tonga Electric Power Board (TEPB). This is the centralized operation that existed before Shoreline took over the power supply operations in Tonga, later sold back to Government, and TPL was birthed.
TEPB was a company that failed, and its operations was under-equipped and provided terrible service for the people of Tonga. It was a company that was financially run out of the Treasury, and to revert to that would be disastrous.
The question is, how did ‘Ipolito and Seinimili end up as powerful decision makers at TPL? Staff members have heard ‘Ipolito Losalo boast a number of times that he sometimes “advises the Prime Minister on finance.” He is from the PM’s constituency and has more than an amicable relationship with him. Information has leaked out confirming that board members ‘Aisake Eke, ‘Ipolito Lasalo, and Seinimili Fonua basically run the show at TPL. They have not been the Board of Directors of three months and TPL is going through a major crisis of sorts.
Input from other Board members are not considered. Even a Board member like John Paul Chapman, one of Tonga’s premier businessman, and the only surviving member from the old Board, has no say in what was done to Sosefina, or the targeting of Steven ‘Esau for dismissal.
Is there a political agenda in all this? How will this agenda affect Tonga’s most vital public service if this new Board carry out a re-structing of TPL to a centralized operation format? Is this the real reason for Steven Esau’s politically motivated dismissal?
Wherever power is the key central issue in relationships and in work situations, sex and money often rear their ugly heads. Sexual favors and money rewards are common in the award system of the power game of life.
The story of the TPL crisis could have ended in a peaceful and just resolution, which is only possible when those in leadership practice fairness, equality, and respect the rights of the employees to have their voices heard. The situation that the staff of TPL face tomorrow rest squarely on the wise or foolish decisions to be made by the Board of Directors.