Cook Islands Deputy PM and two former Govt officials found guilty in corruption case

(L-R) Prime Minister Mark Brown and Deputy Prime Minister Robert Tapaitau (Photo: Parliament of the Cook Islands/Facebook)

Cook Islands Deputy Prime Minister Robert Tapaitau, former National Environment Service (NES) director Nga Puna, and his wife and former Secretary of Infrastructure Cook Islands (ICI), Diane Charlie-Puna have been found guilty of “all or most offences” following a judgement given by Chief Justice Patrick Keane.

In his ruling CJ Keane said: “In my decision, issued [Wednesday, Cook Islands time], which this minute accompanies, I have found each defendant guilty of all or most of the offences with which they are charged, and have convicted them of those offences.”

The trio were accused of taking public funds amounting to $70,000 (US$ 43,074.67) between April 2019 and March 2021.

Prime Minister Mark Brown’s office confirmed he had been briefed on the matter [on Wednesday] afternoon, shortly before the 100-page judgement was obtained by Cook Islands News.

In a written statement, Brown’s office said the Prime Minister had been briefed “a short time ago” by the Solicitor General on the decision released by CJ Keane on Wednesday, relating to the trio.

“The government acknowledges the Court’s decision and will take time to study the 100-page plus document, before commenting further.”

Tapaitau faced three charges of using a document to obtain pecuniary advantage and one charge of conspiracy to defraud.

CJ Keane ruled: “Mr Tapaitau is guilty of all offences with which he is charged; and I convict him accordingly.”

Charlie-Puna faced seven charges of using a document to obtain pecuniary advantage and a charge of conspiracy to defraud to which she entered a guilty plea on 01 June 2023.

In his ruling, CJ Keane said: “Mrs Puna is guilty of all offences with which she is charged, including those to which she has pleaded guilty, except those on which she has been discharged and charges 5,13; and I convict her accordingly.”

Charlie-Puna entered guilty pleas to conspiracy and theft charges in June 2023.

Nga Puna faced 22 charges of using a document to obtain pecuniary advantage, one of conspiracy to defraud, one of uttering a forged document and five charges of forgery.

CJ Keane ruled: “Puna is guilty of all offences with which he is charged, except charges 14, 25; and I convict him accordingly.”

They are due to be sentenced in March.

“Each defendant is now to be sentenced on the basis of a pre-sentence report; and I direct accordingly. I should appreciate those reports being given high priority,” CJ Keane said.

“To ensure, if feasible, that sentences are imposed within the March session, which I will be conducting, on 21 March perhaps, I direct primary submissions be filed and served without reference to the pre-sentence reports.”

The Crown was given until 21 February to file and serve submissions while defence had until seven days before the sentence date allocated.

In his judgement statement, CJ Keane said that in the Cook Islands, government departments, and state agencies, entrusted with public money, money appropriated by Parliament and project aid money, are subject to clear statutory principles, standards and controls.

“Public money is the property of the Crown; and heads of government departments, and state agencies, are charged by statute with ensuring that those public entities have sound financial management systems and internal controls.”

The Public Expenditure Review Committee and the Audit Office were charged by statute with safeguarding public money, and the integrity of all public accounts, including those of government departments and state agencies.

“Within each government department, and state agency, accounts and records must be faithfully and properly kept, revenue must be properly assessed and collected, expenditure must be valid and correctly authorised, revenue, expenses, assets and liabilities must be properly recorded and accounted for, and financial and operating information must be reliable.”

All three defendants elected to give evidence and denied any offence.

Each said, with one exception, that any benefit they received in the ways charged lay within their entitlement; or that, if it did not, they had acted honestly in that belief and without any intent to defraud.

The primary issue on each of the charges, therefore, was not principally the documentary context, which was largely uncontested, CJ Keane said in his judgement.

“The issue is whether the Crown, on the evidence called, is able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendants did act dishonestly and with intent to defraud.”

In discharging charges five and 13 against Diane Puna, charge five alleged she fraudulently used, or procured the use of, an Infrastructure Cook Islands cheque to pay for a week’s Auckland accommodation for her family and herself, during her father’s funeral.

“There is, and can be, no issue that this ICI cheque was capable of, and did, confer on Mrs Puna a pecuniary advantage. It met the cost of her first seven days’ accommodation in Auckland, independently of her father’s house, while she was attending his funeral.”

Charge 13 alleged that fraudulently using, or procuring the use of, a cheque on 7 April 2020, $400 (US$ 246.14) cash, to pay for a lunch for workers at her Rarotonga home address.

In the case against Nga Puna, he was not convicted on charges 14 and 25.

Charge 14 alleged Puna fraudulently used, or procured the use of, two NES cheques to benefit himself, together with a related deposit to his account on 29 August 2019.

There was a lack of evidence underpinning the inference that Puna did fraudulently misuse for his own benefit the cash proceeds of the two NES cheques, issued for a retreat, and thus the cheques themselves.

On charge 25, the Punas were jointly charged with fraudulently using, or procuring the use of, a cheque on 7 April 2020, $400 (US$ 246.14) cash, to pay for a lunch for workers at their Rarotonga home address.

“This payment by cheque may well, I accept, have been a misuse of public money. But the house belonged to the government, and the work needed to be done. The payment was a gesture, after the event, to NES and ICI staff during the lockdown,” CJ Keane said.

The final submissions were heard in the high-profile corruption case late last year with CJ Keane indicating at the time that he would make a decision in the new year.

The guilty verdicts come more than two years after the trio were charged with various dishonesty offences.

In November 2023, CJ Keane released a ruling through the High Court of the Cook Islands, making an order that all theft charges be substituted with fraudulent document dealing charges.

While the original charges were vacated, the pleas from the three defendants remained the same to the new charges.

Tapaitau was reinstated as Deputy Prime Minister for the second time early in November 2023 month after suspension amid the charges.

Tapaitau was the minister responsible for Infrastructure Cook Islands and National Environment Service when the offences took place. He was not responsible for those two ministries due to conflicts with the pending court decisions. The Penrhyn MP resumed his duties as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister responsible for Transport, Marine Resources, Energy and Outer Island Projects. The trio faced a four-week Judge alone trial in July before it was confirmed final submissions in the trial had been pushed back, after CJ Keane sought clarification on legal issues, specifically whether the offending the Crown alleged, ought to be charged as theft, or as fraudulent use of a document.