C.C.C.S. Ministers facing fresh tax charges
Ministers of the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa (C.C.C.S.) will face fresh charges of tax evasion before the end of January.
The impending action was confirmed by the Minister for Customs and Revenue, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, and will open a new chapter in a legal battle between the church and Government that began in 2018.
“We have consulted with the Attorney General’s office who are prosecuting this matter and [confirmed] that charges will be filed [by] the end of the month," the Minister said in an interview with the Samoa Observer at his office on Tuesday afternoon.
"We have already handed over all the necessary documents on the Church Ministers [who] have [allegedly] not filed their taxes, and they will be charged under the tax laws.
“The law is the law and no one is above, we will proceed with tax related charges".
The Minister declined to specify how many members of the church are in the Government's sights but the move follows an unsuccessful attempt to bring charges against 39 last year.
A call to the office of the Church's General Secretary, Reverend Vavatau Taufao, was not immediately returned on Tuesday evening.
The Ministry for Customs and Revenue has previously seized funds from bank accounts of Church Ministers before the filing of charges.
The taxation matter relates to a 2017 change to the tax code which the C.C.C.S.'s leadership had voted to boycott at its general conference: to treat any monetary gifts received from members of the congregation as income.
C.C.C.S. Ministers who defied the General Assembly’s resolution not to file tax returns with Government were to stripped of their pastoral responsibilities, Revenue Commissioner, Matafeo Avalisa Viali-Fautua’ali’i, said during a hearing last August.
But the tax-related charges against the Ministers were eventually dismissed by District Court Judge Leota Raymond Schuster.
The dismissal followed an application by the Ministry of Revenue to withdraw the two charges laid against each defendant on the basis of a lack of evidence.
Each Church Minister was charged with two counts of withholding tax and failure to file tax.
Rev. Vavatau said at the time he welcomed the court's decision as good news and hoped that the matter could be considered closed.
But following the dismissal of the case the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, said the the Government did not intend to leave the matter alone.
“They will be summoned and charged individually," he said. "This is as opposed to the previous practice where they were jointly charged."
The Prime Minister said the move to charge the Church Ministers was a result of the number of Ministers from the church who are alleged to have evaded Government laws.
“The Ministry [of Revenue and Customs] opted to charge the church ministers as a group rather than individually. It was done out of respect for them as church leaders," he said.
“It’s rather embarrassing to serve them individually and the Judge has noted there is a need to charge them individually and that is exactly what the government is doing. They will face charges individually,".