A.G. evades further questions on husband's firm

By Joyetter Feagaimaali'i 03 March 2021, 10:00AM

The Attorney General, Savalenoa Mareva Annandale-Betham, is continuing to refuse to answer questions about how she is managing potential or perceived conflicts of interest relating to her office’s hiring of her husband’s law firm.

The Annandale-Betham firm was appointed before Savalenoa’s elevation to the position of Attorney-General. But documents obtained by the Samoa Observer suggested that a legal retainer contract finalising matters such as how much money the firm would be paid were still being drafted last month. 

The Samoa Observer on Sunday revealed that the firm, owned and operated by Lauaki Jason Annandale and of which Savalenoa was herself previously part, has been engaged to act for the Government. 

The Samoa Observer made repeated attempts to contact Savalenoa and Lauaki to inquire about the nature of the commercial arrangement, including whether she believed it amounted to a perceived conflict of interest and if she had taken measures to counter that perception. 

Despite both parties refusing repeated requests for comment, Savalenoa issued a statement after the story's publication accusing the Samoa Observer’s reporting of being “full of inaccurate information."

The Attorney-General’s press release took the form of an open letter to the journalist who wrote the story and to whom she never responded to multiple questions.

“The engagement [of my husband’s firm] was done early last year prior to my appointment as AG in July,” Savalenoa wrote. 

“Your less than credible sources have let you down again with inaccurate information.”

But the Samoa Observer never suggested that the Annandale-Betham firm was hired after Savalenoa was elevated to the position of Attorney-General in July.

In fact, it cited sources who made the very opposite conclusion. Only the refusal of both Savalenoa and Lauaki to comment for the story prevented this newspaper from confirming the date of the firm’s engagement. 

The fourth paragraph of Sunday’s story read as follows:

“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.”

That was the extent of the Attorney General’s criticism of the Samoa Observer’s reporting.

But this newspaper has since learned that the matter of the Annandale-Betham firm’s engagement is an ongoing issue subject to negotiation and finalisation.

A 12-page draft retainer document between the Attorney-General’s office and Annandale-Betham was provided to the Samoa Observer by a source within her office.

Dated February of this year, the document suggests that several key details of the firm’s engagement, many of them related to the firm’s compensation are still subject to negotiation. The Attorney-General was sent a copy of the documents but did not respond to questions about them. 

Among the issues that are apparently marked as still in draft or under active negotiation include the amount of money the firm is expected to be paid by the Office of the Attorney General. 

“The Legal Representative anticipates that this matter should be concluded by [ESTIMATED COMPLETION DATE] and estimates their fees and charges in this Retainer to be no more than [ESTIMATED COST IN WORDS] SAT$,” the draft contract reads.

The document, which was sent to Savalenoa for comment raises fresh questions about conflict of interest if her office is continuing to negotiate matters including compensation with her husband’s law firm while she is at its helm. 

The counterparty to the document is the Assistant Attorney-General, Galumalemana Noumea Loretta Teueli. 

Among the questions put to Savalenoa but not answered on Tuesday were what, if any, disclosures or formal procedures she had put in place to avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest from her office's ongoing engagement with her husband’s firm. 

She was also asked if she had followed Public Sector Commission guidelines that oblige decision makers to handle potential conflicts of interest by making formal records of them and “being open and transparent in responses to the public”. 

The Samoa Observer also put to Savalenoa that her claim that a conflict of interest, real or perceived, not being an issue because the firm was engaged before she took the job was inadequate.

The Samoa Observer asked her what processes were in place to deal with issues that may arise. She declined to answer questions about who the office would be responsible for potential issues relating to contract variations, issues with the firm’s performance and those currently being finalised by her office regarding the firm’s payment. 

She declined to say whether she had made any disclosure or implemented any process to prevent any apparent conflict of interest as the nation’s first law officer.

No response to any of these questions or those sent last week has been received from either Savalenoa or Lauaki. 

The case in question involves Ulugia Petela Kavesi & Ors v AG (for and on behalf of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and the Public Trustee).

A full copy of the draft retainer agreement between the Attorney-General's Office and Annandale-Betham is enclosed below.

Ulugia v AG v PTO MSIC 288.19 Legal Services Retainer Draft 25 February 2021 by James Robertson on Scribd

Here are the questions sent to the Attorney General, Savalenoa, printed verbatim below. 

Talofa Savalenoa,

Thanks for your email, however, I wanted to get comments on the continuous negotiations for the price per hour for your husband’s contract which was, according to documents we have says “February 2021” where the hourly rate is proposed at $250.

The draft of the legal retainer between the MNRE/Government which indicates under the services of the contract: “the legal representative shall represent the Client before the Supreme Court in the matter of Ulugia Petelo Kavesi & Ors vs AG (for an on behalf of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment & Public Trustee MISC288/19.”

Do you stand by your earlier response regarding the contract with your husband’s firm?

I have attached copies of the draft legal retainer contract for your review and comments.

Also, why did you wait three days to send your response?

Is there still a perceived conflict of interest in the appointment?

Can you isolate one single factual inaccuracy in the article?

We acknowledged in paragraph 4 that we believed the contract was awarded before your appointment but it was your refusal to answer questions that stood in the way of our confirming it.

Do you bear responsibility for failing to communicate with the public and or media?

Also Savalenoa, did you follow the PSC guidelines for managing a conflict of interest?

Your failure to respond to emails is an indication that you did not adhere to the [conflict of interest guidelines in the Public Service Commission] manual?

Do I have a personal/private interest that may conflict, or be seen to conflict with my public, professional duty? 

Record the disclosure of a conflict of interest in a final/outcomes report. It may be necessary to assess the conflict of interest and determine whether one or more of the following strategies is required.

Being open and transparent in responses to the public on addressing a conflict of interest situation i.e., complainant must be informed on the steps and measures taken to address, manage and resolve a conflict of interest that arose. 

Also Savalenoa, variations, extensions, performance issues and myriad other complications could be reasonably expected to arise in a legal engagement of this complexity. These would involve decision-making well beyond the date at which the contract was awarded, such as the February 2021 retainer negotiations. This will be even more so when the matter reaches court. What, if any, disclosures you made to put formal procedures in place to prevent a real or perceived conflict of interest affecting your ability to oversee this case?

By Joyetter Feagaimaali'i 03 March 2021, 10:00AM
Samoa Observer

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