Vaia'ata affair stretching Govt. credibility

Recent issues surrounding the building and tendering of taxpayer-funded projects have stretched this Government’s credibility.

There was a $3 million variation to the Ti’avea airport that bypassed proper tender channels for purportedly urgent work on an alternate runway this newspaper later revealed was not long enough to land a plane on. 

And who could forget the Prime Minister’s declaration that renting $500,000 worth of tents and outdoor equipment by the Ministry of Health bypassing the tender process was little more than “common sense”?

But new revelations about the deeply peculiar Vaia'ata prison project have now pushed it beyond breaking point. 

From its outset, the Vaia'ata prison project was a half-baked idea. 

Having prisoners build their own cells never seemed like a plausible idea. 

But on a much deeper level, the way in which the project has been structured, should have rung alarm bells long before the Ministry of Works Transport and Infrastructure says it recently intervened to stop work on the project. 

We were told that the $800,000 building was not being overseen by a corporate entity of any kind. 

The former Chairman of the Samoa International Finance Authority, Tuatagaloa Alfred Schwalger, did not mince his words when he described these arrangements as "stupid".

“What they should have done is at least submit the plan or something of the project and put down their qualifications and who is qualified to build that [prison] and whether they would be able to meet the building standards required,” he said. 

But the unanswered questions about this project just keep piling up. 

Aside from its highly irregular corporate structure, there were several practical issues arising from using prison labour that the Government, the Ministry and the Cabinet should have seen a mile away. 

There is the painfully obvious potential issue of prisoners sneaking secret escape hatches into the construction job. 

Then as Professor Ralph Adler, an expert in Government accountability and transparency from Otago University said, the idea of employing prisoners as qualified tradespeople, on the basis of taking their qualification on trust, is questionable.

“Although the Government says its prisoners are qualified tradesmen; will the insurance company see it this way? If the insurance company does not, then it may decline fully paying, or paying any, claims made by the Government,” he said.

But the latest revelation on the front page of today’s Samoa Observer unveils the latest layer of confusion in what has already been a deeply perplexing episode. 

The Minister for Public Works and Infrastructure (M.W.T.I.), Papali'i Niko Lee Hang, said on Wednesday this week that he had given the order to stop work on the project because ”there was no permit." (“Ministry of Works stops prison project”). 

His account was supported by the Minister of Police and Prisons, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, who, astoundingly, said that he was under the belief that constructing a building without permission was “not illegal”.

How the Tialavea, who had a background in the construction industry before he entered the Parliament, came to labour under such a misapprehension is an interesting question.

But that is hardly the most curious aspect of this story. 

Papali'i was, in the same story, apparently contradicted by the Chief Executive Officer of his own Ministry, who was adamant that there was a development consent for the project. 

Magele Hoe Viali, the M.W.T.I. Chief Executive Officer, said: 

“I can vouch that the Vaia’ata Prison construction had been issued with a development consent and building permit from the Ministry of Works Transport and Infrastructure," he said. 

But as is revealed today when the Samoa Observer went to view the development consent for the project in question, it showed approval for work was given - but only to start in November 2019.

Works on the project had begun much earlier, in March or in April, according to Magele. The C.E.O. even apparently contradicted statements about the project made earlier in the week by acknowledging concerns about the project raised by this newspaper were valid. 

It's going to be very difficult for anyone involved in this affair to claim they were unaware of this fact, 

It was in May of 2018 that the plans for the Vai'aata project were first announced by Tialavea; it was reported at the time that the project was to be submitted to the Cabinet for its consideration.

Whether it was we do not know. 

But in March the following year, the Samoa Global News reported on a Government press release stating that the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, had travelled to Savai'i for the project’s groundbreaking ceremony. 

Tuilaepa was joined by Tialavea, Papali’i and four other Ministers, the report stated. 

What can we say other than we are highly anticipating the next chapter of a saga that is shrouded in mystery - but also, in its own way, deeply revealing. 

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