Address “culture of silence” in civil service

By The Editorial Board 17 September 2023, 10:00AM

Last Friday a former senior bureaucrat was jailed for three years by the Supreme Court for misappropriation. The successful prosecution of the former assistant chief executive officer for the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration, Serah Skelton is a somewhat unprecedented case as it involved the theft of public funds that directly came under her responsibility.

An article (Former ACEO jailed for 3 years) in yesterday’s edition of the Samoa Observer reported on the sentencing of the former top official.

The fact that the defendant was the second most senior officer at the Ministry after the chief executive officer also makes the case notable, with her seniority not lost on the Judge who ruled on the matter last Friday.

Supreme Court Justice, Leiataualesa Daryl Clarke was taken aback by the conduct of the former ACEO, especially after perusing the various reference letters that her referees wrote which praised the defendant.

“You were a very senior public servant second only to the CEO,” said Justice Clarke. “You were responsible for the employees who managed and reconciled the C.T.A. [civil trust account]. 

“You were tasked at a senior management level, amongst other matters with the protection of public money from acts of dishonesty and fraud…the C.T.A. as the name makes clear was a ‘trust’ fund account. Your conduct was shameful.” 

Her role at the Ministry at that time included oversight over the C.T.A. which had funds collected through the cashier and petty cash. The C.T.A. funds are money ordered by the Supreme Court to be paid by a party to a proceeding into the account pending the outcome of a court matter. According to the summary of facts, between January 2016 and December 2017, the defendant stole money from the Ministry's petty cash for her personal use. 

Reading of the defendant's fall from grace – as an ACEO in the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration to her now spending time in jail – a lot of readers would have been concerned at how the defendant was able to conceal her crimes for over a year before she was found out. Nonetheless, Justice Clarke is correct in his assessment of her conduct – it was the ultimate betrayal of trust for a very senior civil servant. 

While it is not our intention to paint other civil servants in similar positions in the Government with the same brush, it is worrying that there appeared to be no exercise of restraint or hesitation on the defendant’s part. This leads us to the next question on our minds, which is how much would she have stolen if she hadn’t been detected at all by the Ministry of Finance.

But most troubling is the concerns expressed by Justice Clarke at what appears to be a “culture of silence” within the Ministry, which he warned could have ramifications for Samoa’s public service if not immediately addressed.

“A culture of silence around breaches of public finance regulations within the public service must not be allowed to take root,” he emphasised. “It weakens the government’s public finance system and protection of public money. 

“These are matters that the Public Service Commission (P.S.C.) and the Ministry of Finance (M.O.F.) may wish to address.” 

So based on this judgement by the Supreme Court last Friday, can the P.S.C. and the M.O.F. tell us and the public with certainty that the Government’s systems and processes are theft-proof and not vulnerable to abuse?

In fact, the concerns raised by Justice Clarke about the “culture of silence” within the civil service also put the spotlight on Samoa’s Whistle Blower legislation and whether this is an area that the current administration would want to address through legislative reform, now that the three by-elections held last Friday have put Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) candidates in the box-seat to win, which would enable the ruling the party to get a two-thirds majority in the Legislative Assembly.

If public officials in positions of trust don’t feel obligated to report illegal use of public funds, due to the absence of strong Whistle Blower legislation, where does that put the country in terms of corruption? It will be a slippery slope for the Samoan bureaucracy if nothing is done to address these grey areas for the good of the nation and its people.

By The Editorial Board 17 September 2023, 10:00AM
Samoa Observer

Upgrade to Premium

Subscribe to
Samoa Observer Online

Enjoy unlimited access to all our articles on any device + free trial to e-Edition. You can cancel anytime.