PNG climate change officials accused of skimming US$1.3 million in public funds

PHOTO: DevPolicy/Johan10 (Adobe Stock)

Senior staff at the government body responsible for carrying out Papua New Guinea’s climate change response are facing major criminal proceedings after the alleged misappropriation of more than $2 million (US$1.3 million).

Police have arrested and charged Climate Change and Development Authority (CCDA)’s finance manager, Ivan Aipi, after armed officers raided the authority’s Port Moresby premises earlier this year, seizing computers and financial records.

Court documents also allege that Aipi’s wife, a court magistrate, attempted to bribe an investigating police officer, later allegedly apologising through her clerk and claiming her “husband is spoiling her reputation”.

The allegations against CCDA staff include official corruption and misappropriation of public funds, and “illegally executing” cheques for the benefit of CCDA’s acting managing director William Lakain and his associates.

The body is funded by local taxes, international grants including money provided by the United Nations, and contributions from a rainforest preservation project with links to Australian businesses.

The CCDA receives seven per cent of the revenue from the New Ireland Hardwood Timber (NIHT) carbon credits project in Papua New Guinea’s New Ireland province.

A Four Corners investigation earlier this year found logging was taking place in rainforests that were meant to be protected by the project, which has sold carbon credits to Australian banks, super funds, law firms, the Sydney Opera House, and environmental group Planet Ark.

Police raided the CCDA just days before the report aired.

The ABC understands that two whistleblowers working at the CCDA raised concerns with police and government authorities.

One of the staff members was Alfred Rungol, a senior CCDA official who has served as an expert with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

In May 2022, he alleged that two senior CCDA staff members had sought to have 45,000 kina (AUD$20,000) transferred into their personal bank accounts as reimbursement for attending an overseas conference in Germany, despite all the costs apparently being covered by the UNFCCC.

In the email, he claimed the payments would be a misuse of public funds, and amount to corruption.

“I sent the email asking the question, why are they trying to pay themselves to their personal account? I was very serious, I was not happy,” Rungol said.

“This is taxpayers’ money, or international funding … people are suffering in communities, and we have money that we can assist, yet the people are not seeing any assistance from climate change office.”

Soon after Rungol sent his email to CCDA managers, he was suspended over unrelated allegations, and then sacked.

He appealed to the Department of Personnel Management, who deemed his termination void.

“I was creating enemies … but … I have to speak out,” he said.

“I’m from an island, my people are suffering and I’m not seeing projects happening to assist them.”

Neither of the staff members seeking the payments have been charged.

After receiving tip-offs from  Rungol and another CCDA employee, the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption directorate and the Major Crimes unit began investigating the climate change office.

Finance manager Ivan Aipi has been charged with 35 offences, including official corruption, abuse of office and misappropriation of funds.

Police allege more than 5 million kina (AUD$2.1 million) was misappropriated between August last year and March 2023, including almost AUD$150,000 (US$99,000) allegedly spent on hotel accommodation in Port Moresby, with little “benefit to achieve the primary development programmes of the department”.

It is alleged Aipi “hijacked established procurement due process” and “illegally executed cheques for the benefit of Lakain and [his] associates”.

Lakain has not been charged with any offences.

In documents submitted to PNG’s National Court of Justice, a fraud squad officer alleges Aipi’s wife, Magistrate Hilda Aipi, attempted to bribe him.

The officer claims Aipi met him at a courthouse car park and “pushed” 3,000 kina (US$852,000) into his manilla folder, telling him the money was from her husband and Lakain.

The officer alleges he returned the bribe to Aipi’s clerk, who texted him the following day.

“Bossmeri (sic) told me to tell you she apologise for what happen. She said thank you so much for rejecting the offer … she said she was only feeling bad that the husband is spoiling her reputation.”

In a letter written to the Commissioner of Police,Lakain has accused police of interfering in an internal disciplinary matter.

“I am astounded and deeply troubled by the actions of those making unsubstantiated complaints and attempting to have me imprisoned for conducting my legal duties to administer the day-to-day operations of the Office of the Climate Change & Development Authority,” he wrote.

In his letter, Lakain also cited his 14 years in the public service, and wrote that he was not attempting to avoid consequences or dodge accountability. 

Lakain has not responded to questions from the ABC.

Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary crimes director Joel Simatab alleged that funds were drawn in breach of the Public Finances Management Act.

“The allegations are for bonuses that were paid, as well as claims that were put through, and are not consistent with the planned activities of the CCDA,” he said.

“Climate change is a global issue and PNG is a recipient of countries who are donating to assist us.

“When we have our internal processes being abused, brought into question, especially in terms of finance, it gives a very bad impression back to our donors. “The magnitude of this case, we are talking about millions of kina being donated in support of the fight against climate change … and we’re very serious about it,” he said.