From the various letters in your column referring to the allegation of misuse by the Minister of Tourism, T$3000.00 of Government fund, it is hard to give value and express worthiness, to the insinuation by its proponents, that the Government lacked transparency, justice and integrity in its decision. The facts and information that correlates with this issue, as expounded by the local media and which is public knowledge, prompts my conclusion, that the resolution by Government, was, right, fair and just.
It warrants revisiting the incident as it unfolded and the sequence of events, in order, as the saying goes, we are on the same wave length.
The Minister of Tourism approaches by letter the Chinese Embassy Nuku’alofa seeking funds to help and assist with operational expenses to promote Tourism Week Event, designated for December 2007.
Chinese Embassy responds favorably by granting T$3000.00 by means of a cheque.
The Minister in receiving the cheque informs his staff (senior and junior) of the T$3000.00 grant. He further informs the staff of the Ministry of Tourism, firstly, that he the Minsiter pays in cash with his own money T$3000.00 to the ministries petty cash account and secondly, that he accordingly be refunded, by depositing the said cheque from the Chinese Embassy into his personal account.
The CEO of Tourism writes a letter to the Prime Minister informing him that his Minister, has deposited Government fund to his personal account, and accuses his Minister of corruption.
The Prime Minister orders the Minister of Tourism to give explanation by letter to account for accusations made by the CEO.
The Minister responds by letter giving details of the incident and reasons for his actions.
The Prime Minister asks the Auditor General to investigate. The investigation commences, the finding and result is submitted to the Prime Minister.
Before moving on to the results of the investigation, I would like to respond to those who called for the Prime Minister to suspend the Minister of Tourism whilst the investigation is carried out. I would presume here that the Prime Minister with assistance from his deputy or other Ministers and Cabinet weighed the accusation made by the CEO with the response from the Minister and determined that the response from the Minister was strong and convincing enough not to warrant he being temporarily relived. The accusation was based on monetary factors, and much of the investigation would bear on accounting records, cash book etc.
Government Auditors enters a government department and audit their financial records without having to relieve the workers in order to do their work, even if a complaint or accusation is made to a particular person inside the department or to a department. I would presume further that if the Minister of Tourism was to be relived temporarily, the Prime Minister would be forced to suspend for the interim the CEO also. The face value of such temporary suspension is to ensure that no undue interruption is caused, during the investigation. There would have been cause for the minister to be temporarily relieved if the accusation was made by someone outside the department. In this case it would look odd if the CEO was inside and the Minister outside whilst inquest is made. Impartiality rules here, they would either be both in or both out of the department, for the duration of the investigation, until such time the findings are deliberated and decided on. It is understandable that if the finding of the investigation is against the Minister, he will have to go. But before that, the procedures have to be fair.
I would thereby without hesitation conclude that the Prime Minister was correct in his decision, not to relieve the Minister in the interim. I would also put forward that transparency; justice and integrity were clearly observed by the Prime Minister in his decision.
The substance of the Auditor General’s findings is that the Minister of Tourism broke the law by depositing the cheque with his personal account. However, there was no motive to defraud the Government or to misuse the fund. Staff of the Ministry were aware of the exchange and important to note, the Minister first deposited his cash with the Ministry before depositing the cheque to his account. The Auditor General also states, that there is no monies missing from the petty cash account and there was no misappropriation of the cash account of the Ministry, by its Minister.
The action of the Minister was compelled by convenience and practicality. If they were to deposit the grant with the Treasury, the Tourism Week Event would have long passed, before they would have been able to withdraw the funds from Treasury, for expending to run the event. An example here was the services provided from individuals and businesses during the Pacific Leaders Meeting last year, (2007). It took six weeks after the event for the Treasury to pay for the services provided.
The imperative factors the Prime Minister would deduce from the Auditors findings are; (1) The law was broken by the Minister, by depositing the cheque to his account, though, he had prior to that deposited the same amount with the Ministry, (2) Was the motive corrupt ? (3) Are funds lost ? (4) Were funds misappropriated ? (5) What punishment is due? The punishment due is relative to the circumstances, was the motive corrupt? Are funds lost? Were funds misappropriated? The Prime Minister and Cabinet, cannot and should not, consider any other factors but the five terms above. They could not either base their decision on politics and to please the shouting of a few, to sack the Minister. Ironic it is, during this Easter Season.
The Minister of Tourism in breaking the law, and indiscretions, was ordered, to work without pay for three months, strong reprimand and one last chance.
To sum up, The Prime Minister and Cabinet by natural justice, could not, considering the circumstances of this incident, ask for the resignation or dismissal of the Minister.
Lastly, to us living in Tonga, we have no need of the garbage from San Mateo, and to the other writers on this topic, I contend, the pillars of good governance, that is, transparency, justice and integrity was upheld and complied with by the Prime Minister, Cabinet and the Government of Tonga.
Sia ko Kafoa
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