Government wants Royal Commission to investigate Tonga’s passport scandal

PHOTO: Dr Pōhiva Tuʻiʻonetoa

 The Tongan Government wants to establish a Royal Commission to investigate the Tongan passport scandal.

But it must wait for royal assent before the enquiry goes ahead and finances may limit how much it can do.

The Tongan government approved the proposal of a commission on April 15 at the urging of the kingdom’s former Auditor General,  Dr Pohiva Tuʻiʻonetoa.

Dr Tuʻiʻonetoa is now the Police Minister.

The minister did not give the details of the terms of the commission, saying a number of factors had to be considered.

He said setting up a Royal Commission could cost TP$1 million (NZ$656,000) and this would be one factor determining the scope of the inquiry.

Hon. Tuʻiʻonetoa told Kaniva News cabinet’s decision had to be submitted to the Privy Council for royal assent.

He said cabinet believed the commission’s inquiry would help bring many answers to questions that had gone unanswered for years regarding the sale of Tongan passports.

The Tongan passport scandal  

Hon. Tu’i’onetoa told Kaniva News  last year that a passport scandal allegedly involving the Prime Minister’s office in 2014 was one of  the two biggest he had come across in the past three years.

His claim came after audited documents leaked to New Zealand media, including Kaniva News, showed a table headed “Summary of holders of ordinary passport with no naturalisation certificate during audit period”.

A list of 12 Chinese nationals was then displayed  in the table.

The documents also noted that when the auditor asked the Immigration Department to explain why Chinese nationals were being given Tongan passports without holding naturalisation certificate as the law requires, he was told “the direction was given from higher authority.”

 No law

When the Auditor’s office urged the Attorney General to charge the people involved, his office said they could not do anything because there was no law that could be used to launch a prosecution.

Tongan passports were issued illegally to Asians in the 1980s. In 1999 the sale of the Tongan passports was stopped, with the government saying it had sold almost 7000 passports to Asians for almost US$40 million (TP277 million/NZ$181 million).

The termination of the sales came after ‘Akilisi Pohiva, who was then an opposition Parliamentarian, launched a lawsuit against the government for selling the passports. The government then changed the kingdom’s constitution to allow the sale.

The then king, King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, decided the money needed to be invested overseas, saying that if it was deposited in Tonga “the government would only spend it on roads.”

The money was invested in a number of overseas funds at the suggestion of financial adviser Jesse Bogdonoff, a former Bank of America official who had been named as the king’s jester. In still disputed circumstances, most of the money that had been invested in the Tongan Trust Fund was lost.

The main points

  • The Tongan Government wants to establish a Royal Commission to investigate the Tongan passport scandal.
  • But it must wait for royal assent before the enquiry goes ahead and finances may limit how much it can do.
  • The Tongan government approved the proposal of a commission on April 15 at the urging of the kingdom’s former Auditor General, Dr Pohiva Tuʻiʻonetoa.
  • Tuʻiʻonetoa told Kaniva News the inquiry would help bring many answers to questions that had gone unanswered for years regarding the sale of Tongan passports.

For more information

Tongan PM caught up in probe into passport irregularities (TVNZ)

Tonga justice minister warns officials over leaks on passport scandal (RNZI)

Why Corruption Must Cease (Pacific Institute of Public Policy

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