No politics behind church tax case delay: Minister

The Minister of Customs and Revenue, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, has denied claims the Government is delaying its pursuit of a court case against church ministers because of election concerns.

Last year charges against 39 Ministers from the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa (C.C.C.S.), the country's largest denomination which opposes the policy, were dismissed in the District Court.

The Government, despite vowing not to let the matter rest, has not refiled the suit.

“We are not delaying it on purpose. That’s not true,” said Tialavea, when asked why the Government had not pursued the matter again.

“At the moment, all the files of this specific matter have been referred to the Attorney General’s Office. So you’ll have to get a comment from [the Attorney-General] as to why there is a delay,” said the Minister.

Emails to the Attorney-General, Savalenoa Mareva Betham-Annendale, have not been answered on the status of the matter and whether the Government will proceed to refile the case.

The original decision to dismiss the tax case was delivered by Judge Leota Raymond Schuster. It followed an application by the Ministry of Revenue, to withdraw two charges against each defendant on the basis that there was no evidence.

Each Church Minister was charged with two counts of withholding tax and failure to file tax.

Defence lawyer, Alex Su’a, then filed an application to have the charges against the church ministers dismissed.

Following the dismissal, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi at the time warned that the legal battle between the Government and the C.C.C.S. was far from over.

“They will be summoned and charged individually," the Prime Minister said. 

"This is as opposed to the previous practice where they were jointly charged."

At the time, the Prime Minister said the move to charge the Church Ministers as a group was a result of the number of Ministers defying the 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," Tuilaepa 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."

But Tialavea at his office on Friday insisted the Government had not backed down from this legal battle.

“There is no way the Government will amend the law to cater for the [C.C.C.S] all other Church Ministers are paying why are they any different?," the Minister asked.

"The law which has already been passed will not be amended".

The Minister said after the first case was dismissed in the District Court all the relevant documents had been given to the Office of the Attorney-General.

“And to date we are still waiting for [Savalenoa] and whether any charges will be filed; but no, we are not purposely delaying this case,” said Tialavea.

The Minister said it is only a matter of time before the matter reaches the court for the second time.

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