Marape orders corruption watchdog to investigate PNG Ports

Photo: PNG Ports Corportation

The Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea James Marape says the country’s corruption watchdog will investigate the state-owned PNG Ports Corporation in response to revelations by the ABC.

Last week the ABC’s Background Briefing, in a joint investigation with the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, revealed questionable payments involving officials at PNG Ports, which is currently receiving more than half a billion dollars in Australian government funding.

On Sunday night Marape released a statement saying he was “very concerned” by the revelations about PNG Ports, which would now trigger a string of official investigations.

“This report has serious implications on our PNG Ports Corporation, hence, I will direct a full investigation into the allegations by Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC),” he said in his statement.

Marape’s statement said he had also “called for our National Intelligence Organisation and International Revenue Commission to investigate the allegations of impropriety and corruption”.

“I am very concerned that this report implicates our best-performing State Owned Enterprise,” he said.

“As I speak, Minister [for State Owned Enterprises] William Duma has started an internal review on this matter because we have a substantial infrastructure and operational improvement programme going on in PNG Ports.”

The ABC’s Background briefing and the OCCRP revealed questionable payments involving then top PNG Ports officials Fego Kiniafa and Stanley Alphonse around the time a major contract was awarded to a multinational ports operator, ICTSI in 2017.

Leaked documents from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists showed the payments were made by an offshore company owned by Gold Coast businessman Don Matheson, who was paid millions as a consultant to ICTSI.

The ABC and OCCRP revealed the apparent payments in relation to Kiniafa included fees for a champion Australian racehorse Matheson co-owned with Kiniafa, and $20,000(US$13,513) for a chair for a dental clinic owned by Kiniafa’s wife.

There were purchases of 4WD vehicles labelled with Kiniafa’s name, and his wife confirmed they stayed for free in a Gold Coast holiday house owned by a Matheson-linked company.

Matheson, a former Australian A-League soccer team owner who boasted of playing golf regularly with the PNG PM, has denied he was involved in anything unlawful.

He declined to do an interview or to respond to written questions from the ABC.

ICTSI said it hired Mr Matheson for work outside PNG and it was unaware of any payments to PNG Ports officials.

Alphonse, who was named in bank records as receiving $30,000 (US$20,000), denied receiving any benefit from Matheson.

Kiniafa was murdered last year in the PNG highlands town of Goroka following a drunken dispute with a friend.

Kiniafa played a key role in coaxing massive funding from the Australian government to upgrade PNG’s ports network – and he was in charge of the program until his death.

PNG Ports is receiving $621 million (US$419 million) in aid and loans from the Australian government in the largest investment by its flagship Pacific infrastructure fund.

In his statement, Marape confirmed he knew Don Matheson from playing golf but said he had “no knowledge of the alleged financial transactions or the relationships” between Matheson, ICTSI and PNG Ports officials.

“As a senior member of the Royal Port Moresby Golf club, I meet and greet, and play with anyone who walks into the club, including [Matheson].

“I have [not] much detail of his work or business, apart from the fact that he was a town planner and previously sponsor of Waghi Tumbe rugby league team.”

Marape’s statement said he knew nothing about Matheson’s chequered business background in Australia from the ABC/OCCRP reports, which included failing to pay taxes over the ill-fated North Queensland Fury A-League soccer venture.

“To set the record straight, I never knew Mr Matheson’s other backgrounds… and am equally surprised as well,” he said. The ABC has sought comment from Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.