The curious case of the revocation of S.I.F.A. Chief’s term, transparency and the blacklist

The front page of the Sunday Samoan of the 6th of October 2019, carried a story: “Cabinet revokes appointment of S.I.F.A. Chief Executive Officer”.

It immediately attracted attention, given the fact that only a few days before Sunday, another story titled “Dr. Fanaafi Aiono-Le Tagaloa remains head of S.I.F.A” was published, also on the front page.

If people were confused, you can’t blame them. Naturally, one of the first questions is what happened? What could have possibly changed in a few days?

After all, we are talking about the Samoa International Finance Authority (S.I.F.A.) here, the Government’s trusty “cash cow” so to speak. Besides, the history of the length of service by people who had occupied the chair definitely suggests something odd somewhere. You see, when To’oto’oleaava took on the role in 2016, the previous C.E.O had held it for multiple terms. Until death in fact.

And here we are today finding ourselves in a most interesting predicament. The obvious question is what did To’oto’oleaava do to upset the mighty establishment? More on that later.

Meanwhile, what we found immediately was that the decision to revoke the appointment of To’oto’oleaava was made by Cabinet. This was confirmed by the Minister of Finance, Sili Epa Tuioti, when he was approached by reporter Lanuola Tusani Tupufia-Ah Tong.

“Cabinet has officially terminated [her services] and she has been officially advised yesterday [Thursday],” Sili said.

Contacted for a comment, To’oto’oleaava confirmed that she had received a letter from the Office of the Minister of Finance. Titled “Notice of Revocation of your Appointment as the Interim Chief Executive Officer, Samoa International Finance Authority (“SIFA”),” To’oto’oleaava shared paragraph 2 and 3 of the letter with the readers of Samoa Observer.

The letter reads: 

“2. At its meeting yesterday, Wednesday, 2nd October 2019, Cabinet reconfirmed and reaffirmed its decision to reject the recommendation of the Selection Committee, to reappoint you as the Chief Executive Officer of S.I.F.A.

“3. The Cabinet has resolved that the Chief Executive position for S.I.F.A. be re-advertised and your appointment as Chief Executive Officer will expire at 5 pm, Friday 4th October 2019.”

Asked how she felt, To’oto’oleaava said: “I believe the excerpt from the letter speaks for itself. And the salient aspects of the letter in relation to your queries have been provided.”

Well she’s correct there. Anybody with half a brain would now begin to see what is happening. Which brings up the next question, if the Selection Committee, which no doubt would have been made up of some big laui’a*, had recommended that To’oto’oleaava be reappointed, why did Cabinet ignore the advice?

Let's go back to the Minister of Finance, Sili, who, by the way, is the Minister of S.I.F.A. According to people in the know, when matters of this nature are brought to Cabinet’s attention, the Minister responsible usually has a lot of say in what happens.

Now when asked to explain why Cabinet had ignored the recommendation for To’oto’oleaava to be reappointed, Sili said: “That is between Cabinet, and the Board [of Directors] and the C.E.O. She has been advised in writing and the Board is to re-advertise [the position].”

Still Mrs. Ah Tong would not let up.

When she pressed the Minister to be more transparent on the reasons behind the decision, suggesting that members of the public deserve to know, Sili would not budge. He instead pointed to regulations that govern Cabinet’s decision, without specifying which regulation he was talking about.

“I don’t think [that view will be shared by anyone] other than the Observer and a few others. It is Cabinet’s business,” Sili said.

Cabinet’s business? Really? Are not Ministers of Cabinet accountable to the public? By the way Sili, it’s not just the Samoa Observer and a few others who share this view. You are a Cabinet Minister in a Government that gloats about transparency, accountability and good governance like its their gospel truth?

So what happened in this case?

Keep in mind that this is Samoa. It’s a relatively small place where even the coconuts and cocoa trees have ears and mouths. They listen and they talk.   

So imagine then picking up the front page of the Samoa Observer on Monday to find another story. This time it was titled “Cabinet ignored independent advice to rehire S.I.F.A. boss.”

The story revealed that, on top of the recommendation from the Selection Committee, the Chairman of the S.I.F.A. Board, Tuatagaloa Alfred Schwalger, had also written to the Minister to endorse the reappointment.

All this advice was obviously ignored. Which raises the question: Why does the Government waste taxpayers’ monies on a Selection Committee and a Board of Directors when they should just pick whomever they want for whatever position?

Indeed, they should just forget their recruitment processes, save time, money and the headaches and let Cabinet Ministers make the appointments?  

And here is one last interesting bit about this nasty little drama.

A copy of a Cabinet Directive ['Faaiuga a le Kapeneta'] suggested that one of the reasons behind Cabinet’s decision was that certain Ministers were “embarrassed” by Samoa's blacklisting by the E.U. The E.U. anti-money laundering blacklist was released last year and was updated in February this year where Samoa is named among 23 countries that had deficient anti-money laundering controls. Others include Saudi Arabia, Panama, Afghanistan, American Samoa, the Bahamas, Botswana, North Korea, Ethiopia and Ghana.

Here we are at the tail end of 2019 and certain Cabinet Ministers are “embarrassed” about this. Well that’s rich isn’t it?

Where have these Cabinet Ministers been hiding for the past several years while Samoa’s name had been associated with money laundering, offshore taxes and dragged through the mud when it comes to tax havens and all those things? Where have they been sleeping? Have they forgotten the Panama Papers, Paradise papers and Mossack Fonseca affair?

And how could they possibly pin all this on one poor Chief Executive Officer who has merely had three years to try and fix the mess that has been piling up for as long as we can remember?

If anyone should be embarrassed, it should be this Government: firstly for allowing Samoa to be dragged into this shameful blacklist and then secondly acting like a bully in the treatment of To’oto’oleaava.

There is something in Apia township that is setting off a bad stench. Stay tuned!

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