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High-profile case drags on in ‘cluttered’ callover

Saturday 21 January 2023 | Written by Al Williams | Published in Court, National

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High-profile case drags  on in ‘cluttered’ callover
Robert Tapaitau. MFAI/ 22111415

Deputy Prime Minister Robert Tapaitau’s name, alongside former civil servants, husband and wife Nga Puna and Diane Charlie-Puna, have been called in court again.

Their names were called in the High Court at Avarua before Chief Justice Patrick Keane on Friday.

Tapaitau has pleaded not guilty to a series of corruption charges, including three charges of conspiracy to defraud and two charges of theft as a servant, while Puna, the former head of National Environment Service, is facing 26 charges of theft as a servant, six charges of forgery and one of conspiracy to defraud.

Charlie-Puna, the former secretary of Infrastructure Cook Islands, faces three counts of conspiracy to defraud and seven of theft as a servant.

None of them were present at court.

Crown lawyer Jamie Crawford asked if there were any pre-trial issues.

The court heard the Crown and defence would be instructing New Zealand counsel.

Lawyer Tim Arnold, speaking for Puna, said he would not be appearing on behalf of Puna, but would assess the matter.

There had been a recent “block” with disclosure, as a lot of Puna’s emails had been difficult to access, Arnold said.

An Auckland barrister had been instructed to look at the matter but was yet to confirm availability, he said. 

CJ Keane said he was concerned about pre-trial issues and asked for a timeframe in terms of engaging New Zealand counsel.

New Zealand lawyers involved in the case would have to be admitted to the bar in the Cook Islands.

CJ Keane said he was anxious to avoid “clutter”.

Lawyer Brian Mason, speaking for Charlie-Puna, said he did not understand some of the disclosure, and asked the Crown for assistance.

CJ Keane said he not had access to the charges, as his access to the system was limited, “just a glitch”.

Crawford said a forensic accounts expert, based in the Cook Islands, would be involved.

She asked that submissions be tabled by the end of March.

CJ Keane said his preference was next month, but more time was needed.

“The call over is cluttered with sittings, on this case we should put it at a specific timeframe.”

The high-profile trial of Tapaitau, Puna and Charlie-Puna is likely to take four weeks and begin later this year.

In May 2022, Prime Minister Mark Brown reinstated Tapaitau as Deputy Prime Minister “in light of Tapaitau’s court hearing not expected until next year 2023”.

Tapaitau had been suspended in October 2021 in light of the charges.

Later that month, he regained his portfolios of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister responsible for Transport, Marine Resources, Energy and Outer Islands Projects, but not Infrastructure Cook Islands and National Environment Services, due to conflicts with the pending court cases.

At the time, PM Brown said: “At the end of the day, let the judicial process take its course, but if it’s going to take more than a year then it is totally unfair to expect someone to wait in limbo for so long to be able to defend themselves. In the meantime, let them carry on with their work and let them defend themselves when the time comes.”

Tapaitau was re-elected as Penrhyn MP during the 2022 general elections in August.

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