Let the past be Prime Minister Tuilaepa’s guide; Polynesian Airlines then, Samoa Airways today!
Let’s face it. The launching on Monday of Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi’s pride and joy, his government’s new airline company called Samoa Airways, had somehow managed to stir back to life all those fond memories that we’d thought, had been buried permanently away.
And then as if to ensure that the airline, after all these years had indeed returned from the grave as some would say, there underneath the paper’s masthead is the picture of the plane itself underneath the headline, “Samoa Airways joy.”
Even better still, right there in the middle of it all is the imposing frame of the Minister of Samoa Airways and Public Enterprises himself, Lautafi Fio Purcell, as he’s standing there facing the camera with that happy smile lingering mysteriously on his happy, smiling face.
And yet if the truth is told, Prime Minister Tuilaepa’s dalliance into the world of airlines had not been quite as encouraging as his overtures into politics.
The point is that when the government - the late Tofilau Eti Alesana was Prime Minister at the time - decided to set up an airline company, everyone was confident the venture would be successful.
At the time, word came through that the Samoan lawyer who was living in New Zealand, Muliaumaseali’i Sanerivi, had been struck off the New Zealand rolls, and all of a sudden he had no job.
As it turned out though he was to remain down for just a brief spell.
Soon, Muliaumaseali’i was in the payroll of the Samoan government, who had appointed him legal adviser for the airline it had established, called Polynesian Airlines.
It was around the second half of 1993.
Which was good enough for Muliaumaseali’i who had substantial knowledge in international aviation law, so that clearly he was delighted.
He knew he was now in a position to put all that know-how into good use as a part of his service to his country, so that he was quite eager to help.
Within a couple of years, Polynesian Airline had signed deals with Qantas, Air Canada, a United States aircraft leasing company, and even Kuwait Air.
Which meant travel for Muliaumaseali’i, lots of it, were assured.
But even then there was always that little regret in Muliaumaseali’i’s head he just could not get rid off no matter how hard he’d tried – it was the idea that despite the freedom and ease with which he could travel anywhere in the world these days, it was quite possible he would never visit his beloved New Zealand again for the fear of him being thrown in jail, the moment he’d land.
He knew that when he skipped the country while the Tribunal was conducting its investigation into his alleged professional misconduct, he had incurred the displeasure of the New Zealand Law Profession, so that deep down he felt as if he might as well consider himself persona non grata in his adopted country.
That was how sad he was in those days; especially since all the members of his family were still living in New Zealand since that country was indeed their home.
Four years after Mr. Muliaumaseali’i had joined Polynesian Airlines the company was in trouble, and fears it had become a serious threat to the national economy were raised by Treasury.
It explained that since the airline had jumped from a one Boeing airline to a four-Boeing fleet - all of which were on lease - its debt had ballooned to “over a $50 million” in aircraft leases and advances; and now Treasury, worried that the leases were being paid for mainly by the government, warned management to stop its uncontrolled spending or the airline would bankrupt the country.
And then the document listing all those advances was leaked to the Samoa Observer and more public concern was aroused; and yet other than Treasury, no one else in the government showed concern; they seemed imperturbably unaffected.
At the time we had just hired a young university graduate as editor. Aumuagaolo Ropeti Ale had recently returned from America. He attended the University of Hawaii at Hilo. That was when I knew him.
He’d sent over articles some of which we published; they were politically-inspired pieces, unpolished but alive with much cultural enthusiasm, which suggested he was eager to return home and serve his country. So when he turned up in the office that day I hired him.
One morning he came into the office and showed me the document that listed those “advances” and “allowances”.
So I dropped the document on the desk and just mentally discarded them as a hoax.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Polynesian Airlines’ staff advances and allowances,” Mr Ale replied.
“But there’s nothing here that says they’re Polynesian Airlines’ property,” I said. “Where are the letterheads?”
Ale said: “The list is supposed to be unofficial. It’s not supposed to be in the company’s financial records.”
“It’s the truth. Believe me.”
“How can I believe you? I want proof this document is genuine.”
“I’ll get it,” Mr Ale said. “I won’t let you down.”
I picked up the document and went through it more thoroughly this time. The names of the airline’ principal managers – Mr Gates, Muliaumaseali’i and Sala Vaoulu – popped up here and there. And alongside their names substantial amounts of money appeared.
“Where did you get this list?”
“From a source.”
“Who is he?”
“Do you have to know?”
The question hit me hard. Slowly I put the document down and look at Ale in the face. I didn’t expect this. I felt anger rise in me but then somehow I managed to control myself.
So I hesitated, calmed down. Usually the reporters gave me the identities of their “sources.” That way I would immediately know if they could be trusted. I’ve been in this business long enough to know all the genuine sources there were in the government.
Besides, it was well known among our staff – not just reporters - that the need to protect our “sources” was paramount. I made that quite clear after the government, in 1992, passed a law called Printers and Publishers Act. In it publishers and editors are obligated to reveal to the Police their “sources” of published information which government leaders – MPs, cabinet ministers, heads of a government ministries or corporations - claim had defamed them so that they could be charged; whereas previously only the courts had the authority to do this.
Now the government’s concern was clear – since disgruntled public servants had become “sources” and leaked “confidential information” to the Samoa Observer, they had to be punished to silence them; that was the main aim of the Printers and Publishers Act 1992 anyway.
And yet here is Mr Ale who has just been hired and he thinks he knows all about “sources.”
Did they tell him about Samoa’s Printers and Publishers Act 1992 at the University of Hawaii at Hilo? What if his “source” turns out to be a spy and this list of his is a fraud? What is he going to do then?
“No,” I said. “I don’t need to know. Just get this list verified.”
“Yes,” Mr Ale said.
“You have to take this document right to the very top and have them confirm its authenticity. Are you with me now?”
“Yes, I’m with you,” he said.
And so Polynesian Airlines’ “leaked document” became one of Mr Ale’s first important assignments; it was to become his first real test as a reporter.
I said to him: “This is a good story. It’s been handled right. You have to make copies of the document and take them to the airline managers for verification.”
“No problem,” Mr Ale said.
“I want a copy of the list.”
“Right,” Ale said.
He stood up and walked out the door. He went around the other side of the office and took photocopies of the document. Then he came back, gave me a copy, and left. I slid the copy in my drawer and locked it.
The first person Mr Ale went to was the government’s financial secretary Sala Epa Tuioti. He was also a board member of Polynesian Airlines. When he showed Mr Tuioti the document he was told to go and show it to Mr Gates and Mr Muliaumaseali’i.
“They are the people to speak to,” Mr Tuioti reportedly told Mr Ale.
So Mr Ale called Mr Gates who agreed to meet the next day.
When he returned from that meeting Mr Ale said it had not been a good one.
“What happened,” I asked him.
“When he was shown the document Mr Gates snapped: ‘Is that all you do? Why don’t you go and look at ANZ’s books instead.’”
Mr Gates then reportedly threatened to take “legal action” if a story on the “list” was published.
Ale said he told Mr Gates: “ANZ is owned by shareholders whereas Polynesian Airlines is owned by the people of Samoa. As a journalist I am duty-bound to inquire into the airline’s affairs for the public interest.”
He also said he told Mr Gates he thought he was doing the responsible thing coming to him for a comment. Mr Gates then calmed down. He agreed to talk but “off the record”. And so they talked. A little later Mr Gates excused himself, went away, and in a few minutes returned with Mr Muliaumaseali’i. He was introduced as “our legal counsel.” Soon afterwards Sala Vaioulu came too. They all had a look at the “leaked document” and confirmed it was authentic.
“This is ours,” Muliaumaseali’i said.
However Mr Muliaumaseali’i also advised there was “nothing illegal” about those advances, and Mr Gates concurred.
Ale said he told them that even so, “these advances are very much a matter of public interest. They were huge advances by our local standards, they were regularly granted with no ceiling imposed, they were for personal purposes such as entertainment, housing, education, travel, and some of them have been advanced well into the end of 2000. Can you explain that?”
No one responded. However they wanted to know if the “list” was to be made public. When Ale did not give a definite answer they insisted they had to look at the story before it was published.
“What did you say to that?” I asked.
“I said alright?”
“I had to,” Mr Ale said. “They insisted.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“What have you done? So what if they insisted?”
“I gave my word.”
“Who cares about your word?” I almost shouted. “Now listen very carefully. If you want to remain with this paper you’ve got to stop being naïve. Nobody who demands to look at any story before it’s published in this paper is given it. Do you understand? Nobody!”
“They only want to check the facts.”
“Well, isn’t that your bloody job? You write your own facts. You don’t want them to put their facts in your story.”
I pause for a moment. “Listen,” I continue. “If you do what they want you to do they will think they own you. And when that happens you should stop thinking you’re a journalist. You should start thinking about finding another job. In this job you don’t compromise, period.”
Ale looked at me and said nothing.
“I’m serious,” I said. “I’m dead serious! Don’t they teach that in American universities?”
He was still looking at me but said nothing.
“Well,” I said now. “You better go and write that story. It’s going in tomorrow’s paper.”
Ale went away. It was late in the afternoon when he brought his story over. Both of us went through it and passed it on to layout.
“See,” I said to him. “This is how it’s done. Only the editor has the last say on any story before it’s published.”
Mr Ale nodded his head.
He left and did not return for the rest of the day. That was yesterday.
Today is 16 February 1999. The headline across the top of the front page of this morning’s paper reads: “’Nothing illegal,’ says deputy”.
The article underneath it says: “Polynesian Airlines’ senior staff numbering 21 were allegedly made advances and allowances totaling $720,605 in 1997 and 1998.
“A leaked document lists 99 separate advances detailing what they were for, the dates they were made, and the relevant cheque numbers.
“In an interview yesterday, the airline’s deputy CEO Leaupepe Sanerivi Muliaumaseali’i, in the company of manager of finance and administration, Sala Petelo Vaioulu, confirmed the document was authentic.
“This is ours,” Muliaumaseali’i said.
Down in the article Muliaumaseali’i was quoted as saying: “There is nothing illegal about the advances.” He also explained: “They were included in the officers’ contracts.”
At the time the financial secretary was Sala Epa Tuioti.
Today he is Sili Epa Tuioti, and he is the Minister of Finance.
He knows what to do.