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