22 September 2022, Apia Samoa. The Samoa Police say they have completed their investigations into a defamation complaint filed by Minister of Works Hon. Olo Levaopolo Afoa Fiti Vaai, against former Prime Minister and opposition leader, Tuileapa Dr Sailele Malielegaoi.
According to Deputy Police Commissioner, Papalii Monalisa Tiai-Keti, the file has been sent to the Office of the Attorney General to be reviewed.
“However, the findings of police into the allegations, is that there is enough evidence to bring charges of defamation,” said Papalii.
The Deputy Commissioner further explained that advice is sought from the Office of the Attorney General as a matter of process when complaints are made against high profile members of Government such as MPs.
Papalii says charges would be brought against the leader of the opposition under Samoa’s criminal libel laws; and heard in the District Court.
“We have handed the file to the Office of the Attorney General for their own review, and then a final decision will be made,” said Papalii.
The police investigation stems from a complaint filed by Olo after one of Tuilaepa’s press conferences, where the opposition leader spoke out against a Toyota Landcruiser which had been purchased from Australia for the exclusive use of the Minister.
Tuilaepa told the media that the act of fitting the vehicle with private plates is likened to an act of theft of public property.
Furious, the Minister took to national television to say he would sue Tuilaepa for the comments, which are defamatory and aimed to dishonour his position as a member of cabinet, as a minister, as well as his position as an MP.
Olo had added, the allegations have also impacted on his reputation and as such, impacted his wife and children.
The Minister did not deny ordering the landcruiser from Australia. He instead stressed the importance of having the appropriate vehicle, as MWTI Minister, to conduct site visits to all infrastructural developments across the country.
Olo explained that the landcruiser was first proposed to be purchased by the Samoa Airport Authority (SAA), however, approval was given to use $200k tala of underutilised MWTI funds left over from the NZ Government-funded Waterfront project for the Minister’s vehicle.
“So I told the Samoa Airport Authority, that they would be providing a vehicle for the Minister,” continued Olo. “Not for myself personally, but for the Minister,” said Olo.
The Minister had gone on to explain that $50,000 tala was then provided by the Samoa Airport Authority, to deposit a landcruiser for his use, to be procured from a company in Australia.
According to the Minister of Works, he was then told by MWTI that there were savings from the New Zealand government-funded Waterfront Project, to be returned if not utilised by the end of June 2022.
This prompted the decision to reallocate those funds for the vehicle purchase, and hold off on what would have undoubtedly been a burden upon the cashflow-stricken Samoa Airport Authority.
“We did contact Asco Motors and gave them the type of vehicle that was needed, but they couldn’t supply a V8 Diesel, so we went with a company in Australia,” said Olo.
Sa toe logo aú e le MWTI, o lea e iai le savings lea o le poloketi lea o le Waterfront, e toe faafoi, ae sili ai le faaoga. Taofi la le tupe lea mai le Pulega o Malaevaalele, ae faaoga le tupe lea mai le savings”.
The Waterfront project funds of $200,000 tala therefore allowed for the purchase of the Minister’s landcruiser, as well as the reimbursement of the $50,000 tala deposit paid earlier by SAA.
Regarding the private license plate, Olo says many government vehicles purchased under funded projects, are fitted with private plates. He provided a comprehensive list of vehicles from various Government departments with private plates.
According to the Minister, this is only a temporary arrangement, until such time that the project closes.
“That’s why the vehicle is registered with private plates.. but once the project is complete, it will all be properly transferred to the Ministry,” said the Minister.
“O lae resitara i lalo o le private, ona o le poloketi, sei maea lelei le poloketi, ona toe fo’i mai loa lea o le taavale i lalo o le Matagaluega..”
The opposition leader responded to say government policy requires vehicles for members of Cabinet to be ordered through Ministries and not Corporations.
Tuilaepa said the business of Corporations is vested in the Board of Directors under the Minister in charge, and Ministers should not be allowed to order vehicles through the State- Owned Enterprises who are governed by Boards.
The opposition also raised concerns with the choice of a V8 engine in times when the cost of fuel continues to increase, adding that V8s are only suitable for countries with road speeds that allow vehicles to drive above 100 kilometers an hour.
“When government and all car owners struggle with the high cost of fuel, it seems strange that the Minister of Works should be allowed to become extravagant with the use of public funds,” said Tuileapa.
In response, Olo Fiti Vaai said all proper procurement processes were followed, adding that the Ministry of Finance were also well aware of the purchase and all relevant regulations had been followed.
Olo hit back with allegations the opposition had ordered thirteen V8 vehicles priced at $300,000 tala each. He said they were in the process of being purchased for the Cabinet when the new government took over, “And we stopped that,” said Olo.
Having spent many years as the lone opposition MP, Olo said on national television that the opposition needed lessons on how to make constructive criticisms and offered himself to lead the training.
Olo also took a personal approach to the Constituencies of the HRPP leader and secretary, by stating that he would not be inspecting the villages of Lepa and Vaitele, “because they don’t want to buy me a car.”
Ou te le asiasi i Lepa ma Vaitele, ona o lea e mumusu e faatau sa’u taavale”.
Samoa withdrew libel from its criminal code in 2013 as a media reform initiative. However, at the end of 2017, Parliament voted to revive its criminal libel law under section 117(A) of the Crimes Act 2013, despite opposition from media freedom advocates.
A person found guilty of violating this law faces a three-month prison term.
In 2019, a prominent anti-government blogger based in Australia, Malele Paulo aka King Faipopo was charged with defamation against Tuilaepa Sailele, PM of Samoa at the time. Paulo was convicted in the District Court of Samoa and sentenced to seven weeks in jail.