A $5.3 million contract by Infrastructure Cook Islands to a local company for the construction of cyclone centres in Penrhyn is embroiled in controversy with calls for an Audit Office investigation. 20101510
Allegations of conflict of interest and misuse of public funds are the basis of a public complaint over the tendering process for the construction of cyclone shelters on the northern group island of Penrhyn.
The Cook Islands Audit Office is yet to decide whether or
not to conduct an investigation into allegations of misuse of public funds and
others, in the Penrhyn cyclone shelter project.
Cook Islands News has obtained details of the complaint sent
by a member of the public to the Cook Islands Audit Office over the tendering
of a $5.3 million project.
The office has acknowledged receipt of the complaint, which
is dated August 25 of this year and concerns a construction project for two
cyclone shelters on Penrhyn.
On Thursday, Audit director Allan Parker said a decision has
yet to be made as to whether his office will carry out an investigation on the
basis of the complaint’s allegations.
The project was awarded by Infrastructure Cook Islands to
Rarotonga construction company Civil Contractors Limited (CCL) earlier this
year. The company is tasked with building two cyclone centres in the villages
of Omoka and Te Tautua.
The directors of the company are Mark Ford from Penrhyn and
Rarotonga businesswoman Madeline Sword.
The complainant alleges independent Member of Parliament and
Infrastructure minister Robert Tapaitau is in a “direct conflict of interest”
due to a past work-related and “family relationship” with CCL’s Ford. The
complainant describes Ford as Tapaitau’s partner’s first cousin.
The complaint also mentions Ford and Tapaitau worked
together in construction years ago in Australia.
According to a Cook Islands News story published in
September 2011, the two were employed by Brisbane-based BMD Group for the
construction of a bridge in the town of Innisfail. Ford is described as the
The story contains quotes from former Penrhyn mayor Tini
Ford – whom is also mentioned as Tapaitau’s father-in-law in the complaint.
Tapaitau was first elected to office in July 2018 after
running as an independent candidate. The first-time MP then joined a coalition
Government led by the Cook Islands Party under then Prime Minister Henry Puna
with current leader Mark Brown as Deputy PM.
Shortly after, Tapaitau, who is now the Deputy Prime
Minister, was promoted to the role of Cabinet minister, taking on the
Infrastructure Cook Islands, National Environment Services, Transport, and
Outer Islands Special Projects portfolios.
Just over two months later in September 2018, Diane Charlie-Puna
was promoted to the role of Secretary of Infrastructure. According to the
Public Service manual, secretaries and heads of agencies are appointed by
Cabinet based on recommendations by a panel.
Since then, Infrastructure Cook Islands is alleged to have
awarded an estimated $7.5 million in work, including the shelter project, to
Civil Contractors Limited – which was incorporated in July 2019, according to
“This is a very unusual situation, where you have CCL, a
newly operating company with a paid-up share capital of only $300.00 committed
to receive well over $7.5m in public funds from ICI and the government budget
for various works,” reads the complaint.
“Well established local companies have been operating here
for over 50 years such as T&M Heather Ltd and Landholdings Ltd for 27
Allen Parker said the audit office was still assessing the
complaint, with staff carrying out research and conducting interviews.
“There are a number of components in this assessment and we
are working with the Public Expenditure Review Committee” he said. “We need to
cover all the angles.”
As of last month, construction has yet to begin on the
construction of the cyclone shelters.
Civil Contractors Limited’s Ford said the company was
waiting for delivery of a barge from Australia to begin transferring
construction materials and equipment to Penrhyn.
He said the call for an investigation was a matter of
Ford or Sword could not be reached for comment for this