For the A.G., transparency is unconditional
The nation’s chief legal officer is a position that must be beyond reproach.
They represent the state in all legal matters including public prosecutions. We all, therefore, have a stake in their conduct and their ability to ensure that justice is achieved on behalf of the people of Samoa.
Much of that relies on upholding our country’s good name in a courtroom setting, something which demands transparency.
A recent series of articles about our Attorney-General, Savalenoa Mareva Betham-Annandale, and contracts between her office and her husband’s law firm suggests she does not believe in lowering herself to answer questions about her office.
We profoundly disagree with this perspective.
On the front page of the Sunday Samoan we revealed that the firm had been awarded a $100,000 contract by the Government to conduct a review of legislation overhauling the legal system (“A.G. silent again on husband's L.T.C. review”).
Let us make this clear: we make no allegations of impropriety against Savalenoa Mareva Betham-Annandale since her elevation to the position of Attorney-General last July.
But we do believe the associations between her current office and former firm, now run solely by her husband, Betham & Annandale Law are open to several perceptions and imputations of conflicts of interest that should be addressed.
We further believe that now is not the time for silence - or snark, as Savalenoa has chosen as her favoured tone for responding to articles published by this newspaper after refusing to comment beforehand.
The Government last year sought to seek a private-sector opinion about the so-called Land and Titles Court (L.T.C.) bills (now laws). The opinion about the proposed sweeping overhaul of the judicial system including the creation of an autonomous L.T.C. was needed, the Government said to seek independent advice on the bills’ potential ramifications.
Who had been awarded the large Government contract was the source of much speculation in Samoan legal circles.
As a prominent firm, Betham & Annandale was a likely candidate. So, as we ought to have, we contacted Savalenoa before her appointment to the position of Attorney-General to ask if she was involved with such work.
She denied it. Why she chose to do so is one of many mounting questions raised by our reporting to which the Attorney-General has provided non-answers.
A signed variation to a “Legal Retainer Contract” obtained by the shows that the advisory work was scheduled to start on Monday 8 June.
Savalenoa was appointed to her position on July 22.
The contract for reviewing the L.T.C. bills was signed by her husband and the firm’s sole director and shareholder, Lauaki Jason Annandale, at an unspecified date in July.
Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labour company searches show she was formally removed as a shareholder in the firm on 6 August, and then on 14 August her resignation as a director was processed.
That alone presents a messy situation of overlap, one in which Savalenoa’s office was signing a contract variation with a firm with which she was still, technically involved, if Government records are to be trusted.
This is what lawyers would call a perceived conflict of interest: something that could be interpreted as an example of a lawyer having an improper interest in a matter.
Now Savalenoa has insisted that stories about her husband’s firm and its being awarded contracts by her office are a non-issue because the decision to select the firm was made before her appointment to office.
Let us speak plainly: we believe her explanation entirely. We have never made any suggestions, inferences, or imputations to the contrary that a conflict of interest may have influenced the awarding of these contracts.
But we do believe it is only right for Samoa’s first law officer to be transparent when asked about what processes are in place to manage potential conflicts.
Another story, published last month, about Betham & Annandale Law being engaged to represent Government organisations such as the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment made precisely this point again.
“It is believed the firm was awarded the contract to represent the Government agencies before Savalenoa’s elevation to the position of Attorney-General in July last year,” the Samoa Observer wrote on 27 February.
“But this cannot be established as several approaches for comment have not been met with a response.”
Our sources had given us every indication that the firm chosen to represent the Government agencies was chosen long before Savalenoa’s elevation.
It was only a direct refusal to comment by both the Attorney-General and her husband that forced us to stop short of confirming this as fact.
Instead of providing us with the simple information requested long before publication, Savalenoa chose to write an open letter to our reporter, released as a press statement under the grand letterhead of the Office of the Attorney-General.
“The engagement was done early last year prior to my appointment as AG in July,” the letter read.
“Your less than credible sources have let you down again with inaccurate information.”
Combative language such as this lessens the gravitas of the Office of the Attorney-General but Savalenoa's letter also had the effect of proving the veracity of our sources.
Why she chose to wait until after a story’s publication to answer a question clearly in the public interest is yet another question that has gone unanswered,
But in doing so Savalenoa has highlighted the main thrust of the problem with the problematic aspects of her operation of the Office of the Attorney-General highlighted by our reporting.
Public disclosure is essential to avoiding perceptions of impropriety.
The Attorney-General shows total disregard for that principle when she declines the invitation to reply to simple questions from our reporter.
Savalenoa works for the people of Samoa in a very important capacity. The Government’s legal reputation rests on her conduct.
And there are still several questions left unanswered about her office’s engagement with her husband’s firm.
For example, a variation extending the finishing time for the contract for the Government’s legal review was made on 10 September, months after Savalenoa’s elevation.
The contract was signed by the Assistant Attorney-General, not Savalenoa.
But the public is entitled to know how she will deal with the relationship between her office and her husband’s firm. Does she have a system for recusing herself entirely from matters relating to the firm, such as for contract reviews about payment and performance? If so, how is it conducted? Why has the Attorney-General failed to make any public disclosure of her potential conflict of interest with one of the country's leading firms?
A lawyer of Savalenoa stature knows how important the management of even the slightest hint of a conflict of interest is to the practice of law.
The most reputable private law firms operate on a system that has long been known as a “Chinese wall”. If they have two sets of attorneys working on cases that could come into conflict, where one client could be advantaged by the passing of confidential information, they tightly control their employees' communications and disclose it.
But after a distinguished career in the private sector, Savalenoa now works for us. She is employed by the people of Samoa. To fail to answer these most basic questions holds them in contempt.