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Pa Enua building project embroiled in controversy

Friday 20 November 2020 | Written by Emmanuel Samoglou | Published in National, Outer Islands

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Pa Enua building project embroiled in controversy
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 project’s foreman.

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 the complaint.

“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 years.”

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 “politics”.

Ford or Sword could not be reached for comment for this article.