Fraud probe into ousted Oceania football boss

Friday February 21, 2020 Written by Published in Local
Tai Nicholas. 20022024 Tai Nicholas. 20022024

Banned football high-flier says cash, gifts and flights for Oceania board members were Pacific culture and custom.

Rarotonga lawyer Tai Nicholas is being investigated by New Zealand’s Serious Fraud Office over alleged football corruption.

The probe is into allegations of gifts, travel and conflicts of interest when he was Oceania Football Confederation general secretary.

The allegations sparked a battle with Cook Islands Law Society over whether he should be struck off for professional misconduct. Nicholas was not practising as a lawyer at the time of the alleged payments.

Last night, Nicholas said: "Although I am not named specifically in the SFO inquiry I will cooperate fully with any inquiry and no doubt I will have an opportunity sometime in the near future to provide a detailed explanation to the issues raised in the story today."

A Serious Fraud Office spokesman said a complaint had been laid by Fifa, the sport’s world governing body, Stuff reported.

Malaysian-Papua New Guinean official David Chung, the former Oceania Football Confederation president and former Fifa senior vice-president, is also under investigation for alleged fraud.

Both Nicholas and Chung have already been banned from football for alleged breaches of Fifa’s code of ethics.

Nicholas moved to Rarotonga last year after resigning from his Oceania position in 2017, citing personal reasons. He was last year banned from football for eight years and fined 50,000 Swiss francs ($76,140).

Fifa said its ethics committee expelled Nicholas after finding him guilty of misappropriating Fifa funds linked to the construction of a new headquarters for the Confederation in Auckland, and for accepting benefits in violation of the ethics code.

The lawyer previously denied any wrong-doing and earlier told Cook Islands News he received no personal benefit from any payment or transactions, apart from an unpaid airfare he didn’t know was unpaid.

The construction of the multi-million dollar “Home of Football” facility in East Auckland is at the centre of the allegations now before the Serious Fraud Office.

Other allegations include expenses paid in connection with David Chung’s wedding in China, including a gift of $10,000 and airfares for staff and their families to attend, payment of $40,000 for Chung’s knee operation, and inappropriate overseas travel and accommodation.

Fifa loaned the Confederation US$10 million for the two-stage project of sports fields and buildings on Auckland Council land in the suburb of St Johns. Work began in 2012 and was due for completion in 2016.

Instead, stage 2 ground to a halt in 2018, millions of dollars over budget, and mired in controversy.

Court battles between the Confederation and contractors involved in the project have revealed other matters including allegations of inappropriate overseas travel and accommodation.

Nicholas has previously denied any impropriety, telling Cook Islands News: “If the payments that I approved for officials within Oceania Football Confederation for medical expenses, life events or funerals which were approved by the Oceania Football Confederation board are bribery and corruption, then I would do it again without hesitation, since under our Pacific culture and custom, the welfare of our community has to be paramount.

“With respect to the Home of Football project, although I relied on staff and consultants to advise Oceania Football Confederation on the contracts and payments for this project, as chief executive officer you are ultimately responsible and I do take responsibility.”

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