Court rules in appeal by two former senior Govt. officials

The Court of Appeal has found that two former senior officials at the Land and Transport Authority (L.T.A.) had deceitfully altered vehicle records.

Justice Robert Fisher, Justice Ian Harrison and Justice Tafaoimalo Tuala-Warren overturned the acquittal of the former Assistant C.E.O. for the Land Transport Authority, Anoanoa’i Pepe Lafai, and found her guilty on a charge of altering a document with the intent to deceive.

Separately another appeal against a conviction, also relating to four charges of altering documents, filed by another former A.C.E.O., and the assistant manager of the L.T.A. with responsibility for Savaii, Mata’afa Sepelini, was dismissed. 

The pair had been tried together but not jointly on a range of charges relating to the alteration of documents with deceptive intent.

The original acquittal for Ms. Lafai and conviction for Mata’afa was delivered by Supreme Justice Mata Keli Tuatagaloa in May this year. 

Ms. Lafai faced a range of charges relating to her conduct on 13 March, 2018. 

All charges relate to the alleged changing of a date of registration of a taxi with the codename T-337 in the Road Transport Administrative System. Her authority was limited to changing or transferring ownership in details in the system. 

The ruling says that during the trial, senior I.T. official Semo Siaosi, gave evidence that he changed the year of registration of T-337 from 2003 to 2006 in March 2018 on the instructions of Ms. Lafai. 

He recorded the details of the alteration contemporaneously in the comment box of the I.T. system and also informed a colleague, Juliana Ah Yek, of the direction. Her evidence was that she overhead part of Mr. Siaosi’s telephone discussion but did not know the identity of the other party. 

Ms. Lafai denied Siaosi’s account of their telephone call and did not know of the existence of T-337 until 21 March, 2018 some eight days after its details were changed. 

The ruling says Ms. Lafai noted the owner of the vehicle in question (T-337) came to her house seeking a $2,000 loan: $1,600 for general purposes and $400 for re-registration costs. 

“The loan was conditional upon his agreement to change the registered ownership of the taxi into her [Ms. Lafai’s] name as security for repayment and the vehicle was inspected officially on 23 March, 2019," the ruling said. 

The Appellate Court noted that Justice Tuatagaloa preferred the evidence of Ms. Lafai to that of Siaosi and Ms. Ah Yek. 

“She was satisfied that it was more credible and plausible," the Court said. 

“She found the evidence of the two prosecution's witnesses' at best wanting and at time incoherent. She provided reasons in support. The Judges verdict on all charges was underpinned by her findings of fact that Ms Lafai did not direct or authorise the change made by Mr Siaosi on 13 March, 2018.” 

The prosecution mounted a sustained challenge to the Judge’s original findings and submitted that the verdicts were unreasonable and based on a material error of law allowing them to advance an appeal against Lafai’s acquittal. 

The defendants were represented by Fepulea’i Patrick Fepulea'i while prosecuting for the Attorney General’s office was Leone Su’a-Mailo.

Ms. Sua-Mailo acknowledged this court’s reluctance to interfere with the credibility findings originally made by the Judge in the first case and who had the benefit of presiding over the trial. 

However, she submitted that in these particular circumstances the Judge’s approach to the credibility analysis and her reasoning were so flawed as to amount to an error in law. 

The prosecution referred the appellate court to relevant extracts from the oral and documentary evidence adduced at trial. 

The ruling states that the Judge in the initial case had dismissed Mr. Siaosi’s evidence as incoherent but it found that the transcript of testimony did not support that conclusion. In response to repeated challenges from Fepulea’i, Siaosi consistently maintained Ms. Lafai had instructed him to make the changes, the court found. 

“We agree with her submission that much of it raises serious doubts about the plausibility of Ms. Lafa’is account, we refer to some material elements of the Judge's reasoning which cause us concern," the ruling stated.

“His evidence did not waver or equivocate, it was not suggested that he had a motive for acting of his own volition. He can only have acted at a third party’s request or direction.” 

The Appellate Court raised serious questions about the alleged commercial relationship between Ms. Lafai and the owner of the taxi:

“Its timing and circumstances raise suspicious about its existence and terms. It also seems highly irregular for a senior L.T.A. employee to lend funds to a taxi driver for the express purpose of enabling him to re-register his vehicle.”

Justice Tuatagaloa had considered it nonsensical to change the taxi’s registration date from 2003 to 2006 if the purpose was to circumvent a Cabinet directive. 

The Appellate Court concluded that Mr. Siaosi and Ms. Ah Yek were telling the truth:

“Our conclusion is reinforced by the fact that on a direct credibility conflict the Judge preferred Ms. Lafai’s evidence at trial where she admitted her apparently dishonest conduct in taking unlawful advantage of her privileged rights under the staff debtor scheme relating to the very vehicle which was the subject of the falsely altered registration details a few days earlier and where the totality of the surrounding circumstances raised serious doubts about her denial.” 

The Appellate Court ruled that finding by Justice Tuatagaloa were “unreasonable” in the case of Ms. Lafai. 

“In exercise of our powers we substitute a verdict of guilty on the charge of altering the R.T.A.S. information relating to T-337 with the intent by deception a privilege pecuniary or benefit," the ruling stated. 

The Appellate Court dismissed all the other charges in case of Ms. Lafai. She will be sentenced at an unspecified later date. 

In April, 2019 Mata’afa was convicted of two counts of altering with intent to deceive and four charges of using documents altered on an L.T.A. electronic system called Road Transport Administration System (R.T.A.S.). 

Supreme Court Judge, Justice Mata Keli Tuatagaloa handed down a conviction and fine of $3,000. Mr. Sepelini appealed through his lawyer, Fepulea’i Patrick Fepulea'i. 

“In January, 2018 the Cabinet of the Samoan Government issued a directive that all commercial vehicles over 15-years-old could no longer be registered in that capacity. As a consequence, a certain number of commercial vehicles would necessarily become ineligible for re-registration each year as they fell outside the 15-year period," the court wrote. 

Justice Mata found Mata’afa guilty of two charges of altering a document with intent to deceive and two charges of using a document relating to two taxis (T-454 and T-1588). The Judge was satisfied that the charges of altering with intent to deceive were proven beyond reasonable doubt. 

On appeal Mr. Fepuleai accepted the Judge's factual findings that Mr. Sepelini made the changes to the dates of registration and that he used the documents for his purpose. 

He challenged her verdict on other grounds: 

“The prosecution failed to prove the mental element of intent to deceive coming to all charges for the two taxis," the lawyer argued. 

"That is because there was no evidence that the changes made by Mr. Sepelini to the years of ownership were false or lacked authenticity."

But the ruling found Mr. Sepelini had a financial interest in obtaining re-registration of both vehicles when they were otherwise ineligible.

"He would be able to continue operating them as taxis for his financial benefit," the ruling found, while noting the changes were made soon after the new Cabinet directive. 

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