Chief Justice makes flying visit for charter flight case

Saturday March 14, 2020 Written by Published in Crime
Prime Minister Henry Puna touches down in Omoka, Penrhyn, during a pre-election visit to the northern islands aboard a chartered executive jet.  LISA WILLIAMS 18081532 Prime Minister Henry Puna touches down in Omoka, Penrhyn, during a pre-election visit to the northern islands aboard a chartered executive jet. LISA WILLIAMS 18081532

Lawyer prosecuting Prime Minister has winning form.

The private prosecution of Prime Minister Henry Puna and Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown is set down to be heard this month.

The two men deny improper use of public funds in chartering a flight to pick up two MPs, who support the government, from the Northern Group after the 2018 general election.

It is the only case that the Chief Justice Sir Hugh Williams QC will preside over this month – everything else in the scheduled three-week sitting has been postponed because of the coronavirus risk.

The Court was to sit on Monday. Instead, Secretary of Justice Tamatoa Jonassen said the Chief Justice would delay his flight to Cook Islands by a week. 

“All matters scheduled for the three-week sitting will be postponed, except a private prosecution matter scheduled for the week he will be in country,” Jonassen said.

“Please note that the Covid-19 situation is evolving daily, and other court-related matters are subject to change.”

Teokotai Noo George, a former Demos candidate who ran against Mark Brown in the 2018 election, has lodged the prosecution.

Earlier, both Puna and Brown pleaded not guilty to four separate charges over the charter jet row.

They have been charged on two counts each for conspiracy by defraud and two counts each for improper payment of public funds.

Private prosecutions are rarely successful – but lawyer Teokotai George’s lawyer has form.

Last year, lawyer Norman George, a former MP, successfully prosecuted Melanie Wilson for theft, on behalf of her former employer Athletics Cook Islands.

Now, he alleges a charter flight was used for political purposes in the days after the 2018 election, rather than for a health emergency as purported.

He claims Puna and Brown participated in a scheme to bring newly-elected MPs from Pukapuka and Penrhyn by chartering a jet aircraft for about $32,000, “by fraudulently using public funds”.

The second charge relates to “procuring for themselves and the Cook Islands Party the improper payment of $32,000 of public money” for the same charter flight.

Lawyer Tim Arnold is acting for Brown; lawyer Ben Marshall is acting for Puna.

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