There is a case to answer in smuggled whisky case

Levaopolo Talatonu handed over the evidence.

Levaopolo Talatonu handed over the evidence.

Alan Ah Mu

APIA: THURSDAY 12 DECEMBER 2013: There was a prime facie case to answer against a Member of Parliament and his employee charged with offences in relation to illegal whisky, the District Court ruled today.

Justice Mata Tuatagaloa delivered the ruling shortly after mid-day after hearing submissions that there was no case to answer from the two defence lawyers yesterday.

The submissions yesterday were not the final submissions in the matter nor was the ruling awaited today on the guilt or otherwise of the defendants as reported earlier.

But the prosecution’s case is that Member of Parliament Levaopolo Talatonu Va’ai, trading as Island Freight, imported about 900 crates of whisky disguised as personal effects in a container.

Levaopolo and employee Christine Ainuu are jointly charged with four counts of false declaration pursuant to section 221 and 209 of Customs Act 1977 and four counts of defrauding the Customs pursuant to section 218 and 209 of the same.

Ainuu is further charged with five counts of forgery/ making false document and eight counts of uttering forged document pursuant to the Crimes Ordinance 1961.

Shipping documents were created, which involved making up fictitious persons as receivers of fictitious personal effects, and noting them down on the documents, prosecutor Leinafo Taimalelagi argued.

The false documents included four house bills on which Ainuu forged the signature of Josephine Hunt, a Customs Officer, who is claimed to have checked and signed the release for the four owners to take the goods away – and received the money for the duty paid on them.

The documents were then presented to various Customs Officers as genuine, the allegation goes.
For the forgery charges against Ainuu, the prosecution relies on the allegation that it was she who produced and presented documents to Customs officers as genuine, defence lawyer Toleafoa Solomona Toailoa said.

But it was obvious Wanda Tagaloa was the Island Freight employee who had personally presented the said documents to Customs officers and “it’s tantamount of abuse of the court process” for the prosecution to have continued with the charges, Toleafoa said.

Tagaloa left for New Zealand under the Quota scheme in October, the court heard yesterday.

Justice Tuatagaloa yesterday rejected a written statement the former Island Freight employee had given Police as evidence since Tagaloa was not present to confirm its contents.

Toleafoa yesterday said the prosecution should have had the decency to withdraw the forgery charges against Ainuu so a citizen of this country was not burdened with inconsequential charges as has happened.

He called for the charges to be dismissed.

So too the false declaration charges against his client.

For discussions between Ainuu and Customs officers were informal and as such cannot come under the definition of “declarations” as recognised by law.

The defence lawyer said “mere casual statements made by a person to Customs officers” are not declarations.

Given the nature of Customs work a verbal declaration sufficed, Taimalelagi said.

Of the allegation that Ainuu made up documents, Toleafoa said, “You Honour the only evidence the prosecution relies upon in support of those charges is the testimony of (Customs Officer) Ietitaia Iosia.”

Iosia testified that Ainuu admitted to him she had produced and falsified documents, but prosecution witnesses themselves said the documents originated from overseas, he said.

The defence lawyer threw doubt on Iosia’s credibility saying for instance he went and talked to Ainuu alone, telling a colleague to stay behind.

“Your Honour such a move seems very odd to me,” Toleafoa said.

He said anyone like Iosia who professed to have gone to seek a confession would have wanted a witness along.

The only reason for the lone visit was Iosia’s plan to frame Ainuu and did not want anyone to witness it, he said.

The defence lawyer also asked the court to bear in mind an email was sent from Jonah Lee attaching the documents which Customs and Police allege Ainuu had made.

Te’o Richard Fa’ai’uaso, lawyer for Levaopolo said his client was not a Customs agent, but a Customs Carrier. As such Levaopolo may not be held liable for the conduct of his employee, said Te’o.

The case was earlier this afternoon adjourned to 2pm for the defence to decide whether to call witnesses or not. The last witness for the prosecution gave evidence yesterday.