Samoa Police have launched an investigation into a defamation complaint filed by the Minister of Works Transport and Infrastructure, Olo Afoa Fiti Vaai.
Police Commissioner Auapaau Logoitino Filipo in response to questions from SGN, said Olo Fiti Vaai had filed a complaint with police two weeks ago.
Hon Olo Levaopolo Afoa Fiti Vaai had made his intentions made public in June, that he would be filing a defamation law suit against the leader of the opposition and former Prime Minister, Hon Tuilaepa Dr Sailele Malielegaoi.
“I am going to sue Tuilaepa. I am also going to sue the radio station, Maota o Viiga,” said Olo.
The complaint stems from one of Tuilaepa’s weekly press conferences where the opposition leader raised the issue of a toyota diesel landcruiser fitted with private plates, which had been ordered from Australia for the exclusive use of the Minister.
In response Olo offered a detailed explanation on the EFKS TV’s Soalaupule programme – a church-owned national television station that is has been frequented by Cabinet Ministers on a werkly basis.
The Minister did not deny ordering the landcruiser from Australia and stressed the importance of having the appropriate vehicle, as MWTI Minister, to conduct site visits to all infrastructural developments across the country.
The landcruiser was first proposed to be purchased by the Samoa Airport Authority (SAA) said the Minister, 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.
“I have nine State Owned Enterprises under my authority (o lea ou te pule ai), so I can allocate which one of those SOE’s should purchase our vehicles,” said the Minister who added that the new government did not have to follow the previous government’s policies because they can set their own.
Olo went on to explain that the Samoa Water Authority (SWA) were told to provide the vehicle for one of his Associate Ministers, while the Samoa Shipping Services (SSS) was directed to purchase a vehicle for his other Associate Minister.
“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 goes on to explain on the radio interview 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, Malele Atofu Paulo, who had been a prominent anti-government blogger based in Australia – also known as King Faipopo – was charged with defamation against then PM Tuilaepa Sailele. Paulo was convicted and sentenced to seven weeks in jail.