Destroying files while in caretaker mode suspicious

It is worrying that amidst Samoa’s two-month-old constitutional crisis, with the Human Rights Protection Party and the Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party still at loggerheads over legitimacy, Government records dating back to 2018 were dumped at the Tafaigata landfill.

It begs the question whether someone, in the still of the night, had been cleaning out their office files in anticipation of a change of government in a bid to conceal evidence of wrongdoing.

The thought of the act itself should send a shiver down the spine of every right-thinking Samoan, who continues to aspire for a transparent and accountable Government, even after the 9 April 2021 general election.

Nonetheless the discovery of multiple bags of government records, belonging to the Ministries of Customs and Revenue (M.C.R.) and Natural Resources and Environment (M.N.R.E.) at Apia’s dumpsite, is a cause for concern.

But the caretaker Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, just as he has done over the years whenever his Government came under scrutiny, brushed off allegations of concealing impropriety and said the practice of discarding official documentation at the landfill wasn’t new and they’ve kept digitised records since 2000.

"But nowadays, in the year 2000 many Ministries had started to store records into computers, starting with birth certificates and so forth,” Tuilaepa said.

"And with the massive enhancement of our computer systems nowadays, there is no need to worry. 

"Every day there is a lot of rubbish. The rubbish is often taken to Tafaigata or even burnt; that's where these suspicions have surfaced, but these are not important documents being burnt."

But the documents discovered at Tafaigata recently are not birth certificates and the like, as the caretaker Prime Minister alluded to in his weekly program on TV3 on Wednesday.

The documents appear to be official records of financial transactions, undertaken on behalf of and under the seal of the Samoa Government through the M.C.R. and the M.N.R.E. for the people of Samoa.

According to the F.A.S.T. Member of Parliament-elect Olo Fiti Vaai, the paperwork found in the black trash bags that were dumped at Tafaigata date between 2020 and 2018.

"These are Ministries that often involve a lot of money. Revenue and especially the M.N.R.E. have a lot of overseas funds with records that must be kept well,” Olo said in a phone interview. 

"If you see the bags of paperwork up [now collected as evidence at our office], they are from 2018, 2019, 2020.

"They should not have burnt any of those records, some of those records have not been there for a year and they want to burn them.”

So can the caretaker Prime Minister explain to the nation why public servants in two key Ministries are destroying official documentation when the Government is in caretaker mode?

And who within the caretaker Government is giving the orders for the destruction of these official documentation and why has this been happening over the last three weeks?

The testimony of former H.R.P.P. candidate-turned-contractor Afoa Fetulima Nonu, who was tasked to “bury” the paperwork by the two Ministries in the last three weeks, also raises questions about Tuilaepa's own statement on this issue.

Which brings us back to the crux of the matter that Olo also raised: why is the M.C.R. which is charged with the responsibility to raise revenue for this country destroying official records of financial transactions?

And why is the M.N.R.E. which has mandate and oversight over a number of multimillion tala donor-funded projects discarding records for the years 2018, 2019 and 2020?

The actions of the officers from these two Ministries – if it is proven that public servants are indeed behind these actions – are suspicious and warrant an independent investigation by law enforcement authorities including the Police.

Funnily enough, if the caretaker Prime Minister remembers, over a decade ago it was his Government that enacted the Public Records Act 2011 to provide for the “custody, control, management, preservation and use of public records, and for establishing the National Archivist and National Archives and Records Authority.”

Turn to page 12 of that particular Act and you will notice the explicit reference to the Chief Executive Officers of Government Ministries “to ensure compliance with the Act”.

Therefore, can the M.C.R. and the M.N.R.E. Chief Executive Officers explain their actions and whether they are in line with the provisions of this law to take custody, control, manage, preserve and use public records?

And is it morally right to undertake such actions when a Government is in caretaker and on the cusp of transitioning to a new administration?

Even the explanation on Thursday by the M.C.R. Chief Executive Officer, Matafeo Avalisa Viali-Fautua’alii, that the records were stored in “confidential waste bins” and buried at Tafaigata falls steeply short of meeting the requirements of a proper records management system, which would have maintained confidentiality of the Ministry’s clients.

But then again why is Matafeo undertaking this exercise of removing M.C.R. documentation when the Government is in caretaker mode and any activity that would appear to suggest concealment would immediately raise suspicion?

For the record: the people have already gotten used to the late night proclamations and the covert social media activity of the H.R.P.P. led caretaker Government in the last two months, which resulted in decisions which were later overturned by the Courts. 

This new episode on the destruction of official government documentation might as well be added to the growing list of the 42-year-old party’s infamy. 

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