The Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Works, Transport and Infrastructure (M.W.T.I.), Afamasaga Su’a Pou Onesemo, has rejected allegations of corruption leveled against him by a former Member of Parliament of the Government of India, Sh.P.K. Bansal.
In his capacity as the Executive Director of a company called Ascent Navals, Mr. Bansal had written to the Chairman of the Public Service Commission on 28 May 2018, alleging “corrupt and illegal practices” by the Chief Executive Officer.
“For transparency, we the Board of directors of the Ascent Navals Company, through our Director General Capt Suniel K. Sharma, applied to become a Recognised Organisation (R.O.) when M.W.T.I. advertised last year,” Mr. Bansal wrote.
“Up until now, all I am receiving from this C.E.O. is lies and excuses without a proper update of my application. I know we have been betrayed by Mr. Onesemo and more (sic) worse, he has been asking favour and use us in many ways on pretext of authorising us as R.O.”
When the Samoa Observer contacted Afamasaga for a comment, he not only denied the allegations in the letter, he counter-accused Mr. Bansal and Ascent Navals of being corrupt themselves.
“These allegations is due to their frustration from numerous visits to Samoa and offers to myself and the Ministry that I continued to deny,” Afamasaga said.
“He even offered a proposal to Samoa Shipping Corporation, which was also denied. These people are so demanding and the approach of bribing officials that I never accepted. Had there been any offers accepted, I would have been hesitant to remove them from the selection process.”
The Chief Executive Officer said his decision to remove Ascent Navals from the recruitment process has led to them making false allegations against him.
According to Afamasaga, the Indian company approached the Samoan Government in 2014 to establish Samoa International Maritime Authority (S.I.M.A.) that will do vessel registry for Samoa.
“In 2015, the company was declared fraud by Samoa M.W.T.I., as this was done without the knowledge of the C.E.O. at the time, Vaaelua Nofo. Internal investigation was conducted and Vaaelua at the time ceased everything with regards to S.I.M.A.
“In January 2016, when I was just appointed C.E.O. internal (A.C.E.O. Maritime) advise was given to me to consider starting a vessel registry.
“Without prior knowledge, I directed to seek approval from Cabinet (P.K.) for vessel registry as there are economic benefit for Samoa with registry fees and job opportunities on locally registered vessels.
“Two companies were nominated and proposed for approval including Ascent Naval, Thailand. With appropriate approvals in November 2016, authority was given to Ascent Naval and another company and the Philippines to proceed with the registry and related works.”
But there was a problem.
“Two months later (February 2017) this company, Ascent Naval was brought to my attention by our overseas mission in New York that was declared fraud by Samoa in 2015.
“Immediately after, I revoked the authority given to Ascent Naval and investigated internally. I retrieved all documents from officials who conducted the investigation in 2015 including the notice to I.M.O. and the people who were involved. Two people from the Ministry were identified to be involved but denied any knowledge and involvement. Matter was discussed with the A.G. at the time, but it did not proceed to any conclusion.”
Afamasaga did not name the people from the Ministry who were involved.
“With the approval from Cabinet, and the genuine approach from shipping agents including Ascent Naval, we restarted the recruitment process with the call for Express of Interest from May 2017,” Afamasaga explained.
“This was due in July in which three companies Korean KR, Iranian ICS, and Ascent Navals from Thailand showed interest. Ministry with A.G. Office is preparing a Request for Proposal (R.F.P.) for the selected companies.
“We received reports recently that Ascent Naval is continuing their vessel registry, in which they were issued with a warning reminding them of revocation of authority and the possibility of removal from process if continue.
“Last week on 27 May to 4 June, I.M.O. was here to conduct an audit and informed that a lot of vessels are registered under our flag through Ascent Navals and other companies, thus on 27 May, I told the director of the company off via text and informed them of being removed from the vessel registry. I guess this is why he wrote to P.S.C. because of their removal.”
In the letter from Mr. Bansal, he alleges that Afamasaga demanded favours, properties, cash and airfare tickets for him and his family to travel to Singapore (see letter in editorial page 13 and Afamasaga's response in full).
Asked for a comment, Afamasaga denied that his family ever used the airline tickets.
“Their claims mentioned in their letter, that I demanded is false,” Afamasaga said.
“As a matter of fact, they offered properties and cash in return for me to change my mind and sign them back on, but that was not going to happen.
“Regarding the trip, I was in Australia for a golf tournament when they wanted to meet and so they paid the airfares and accommodations. I took the trip to meet with them on their expense, but not my family. They didn’t go on this trip.”
The hiring of a mechanic for Afamasaga Su’a’s shop in Samoa and other allegations contained in the letter were also denied by the C.E.O.
On Tuesday night, the Attorney General, Lemalu Hermann Retzlaff, issued a statement.
“I can confirm that a formal Police investigation was launched on 6th June 2018 by the Ministry of Police Criminal Investigation Division, in view of a complaint alleging corrupt practises by a Government C.E.O,” Lemalu is quoted as saying.
The statement went on to say that records of the allegations were sent to the Attorney General and received on 5th June 2018.
After consideration, it was referred by the A.G. to the Police Commissioner, with a recommendation that a criminal investigation commence immediately given the nature of the allegations.
The Minister overseeing the C.E.O., the Acting Prime Minister and also the Prime Minister, who is on travel duty, were then informed for their information, that this process has been activated by law enforcement agencies.
“The allegations are serious and do require looking into,” Lemalu said.
“The Police have confirmed today that the recommendation for a formal investigation has been accepted, and that a team has been appointed to undertake the task and follow procedures as required, including being mindful of the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
“I cannot otherwise reveal actual details of the allegations at this time, as the matter is now the subject of a Police investigation.
“However, it is important that there is public reassurance, that as soon as the complaint was received, it was immediately acted upon by this office and the Ministry of Police, in an effort to prevent any delays, remove any suggestion of preferential treatment and to make it clear, that no one can be considered to be above the law.”
When the Acting Prime Minister, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, was contacted for a comment, he told the Samoa Observer that the matter has now been handled by the P.S.C. and the Police.
Asked if the C.E.O will be suspended pending the investigation, Tialavea said: “That decision is up to the discretion of the Commissioner of P.S.C. Aiono Mose Su’a. That’s the process under the law.”
Attorney General Lemalu echoed the same sentiments.
“Under the Law, the P.S.C. Commissioners make the recommendation to Cabinet whether to suspend or not.
“The Acting P.M. and I recommended in writing to Chairman that the C.E.O. could be suspended pending the outcome of inquiries. The decision is for the Commission to now consider. Whatever their decision, the criminal investigation is now activated and can continue.”
In the meantime, Afamasaga said he welcomes the investigation by the Ministry of Police.
“I welcome the investigation because then they will see what is going on,” he said. “These are bitter business people who did not get what they wanted and they will go to any lengths to get back at me.”