Customs lawyer talks of the whisky investigation

The Customs Department office in the main wharf

The Customs Department office on the Apia main wharf

BY Alan Ah Mu

APIA: THURSDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2013: Crates of whisky bottles slipped into the country without the knowledge of Customs which later estimated the subsequent loss of income from duty at $236, 000.

They were alerted to the matter when brands of bottles of VATT 99 and Democrat Scotch Whisky were discovered being sold at shops but no record existed that significant amounts of whisky had entered the country at that time, said Komisi Koria, Assistant Chief Executive Officer of Legal Services Division in Ministry of Revenue.

In evidence before the District Court Koria said he prepared a notice of seizure which found about 900 crates of illegal whisky, the bulk of which were seized at a location in Lotopa.

The investigation then focused on who had imported them.

A Jonah Lee approached them after the bottles were seized to ask how he could clear them at Customs, Koria said. Lee was told it would cost $236, 000, he said. Lee said he did not import the whisky. He had bought it from a European man, whose name he didn’t know, at the start of 2013.

Koria thinks Lee mentioned January 2013 as the time of purchase. The European had since and gone overseas, Lee said according to Koria.

On 5 March Koria went with Solia Tanuvasa Kalolo, ACEO of Warehouse Division to seek information from Island Freight about container BHCU3078686.

The container was linked to the Ministry of Revenue (of which Customs Division is part) investigation because Customs officer Mika Su’esu’e Te’o had seen bottles of spirits unloaded from it on a visit to Island Freight premises the previous month.

Te’o had gone there to clear cargo that belonged to someone else.

Upon seeing the Customs Officer arrive, a taule’ale’a (non-matai man) hurriedly closed the door of the container, he said.

Two boxes from the container was apparently being transferred to a minivan as a man wearing sunglasses and a cowboy hat – later identified as Jonah Lee – sat with a woman in chairs in the  warehouse near the container.

The container was close to the warehouse but outside it.

In reply to his inquiries Christine Ainuu at the office upstairs of the premises said the blue container was empty but was now used by a Jonah Lee to store goods, Te’o said.

Asked what the goods were she said, “I don’t know,” according to the Customs Officer.

Te’o said he saw Lee give a bottle of spirits to four boys who had suddenly halted work and shut the door of the container.

As he left Island Freight he took a photo of the number of the container with his mobile phone.

He told his superiors of his suspicions and learnt from their system that the blue container was “outstanding” – or it hadn’t been cleared by Customs.

Koria said they wanted to ask Island Freight when container BHCU3078686 had arrived in the country as they investigated who had imported the whisky bottles of about 900 crates which they had seized in February.

They found it had been sent to – or consigned – to Island Freight and arrived in the country on 19 December 2012.

According to their records the cargo had not been cleared – duty had not been paid on it – so they expected it to be still inside the container at Island Freight.

At the company’s office Christine Ainuu told them the cargo which consisted of personal effects had already been cleared.

The container was no longer at Island Freight premises.

Koria and Solia asked for records and were given four way bills which showed four different persons had cargo in the container.

They were Simanu Lealofi, Claudia Ini, Matafeo Fiso and Fa’amatala Aseta.

All the way bills were signed by Customs officer Josephine Hunt who’d cleared the cargo.

Director of Island Freight Levaopolo told them Jonah Lee had sought his help for storage space, he’d told his staff to help Lee and that is why Mika Te’o of Customs had seen what he’d come upon.

They thought all was legal until Josephine Hunt told them she hadn’t signed the way bills at Island Freight to clear the container in question, Koria said.

Two or three days after their visit to Island Freight they put a stop order on Jonah Lee but Lee had left the country.

An “alert” remains at Immigration for Lee.

Koria believes Island Freight imported the illegal whisky in container BHCU3078686 using false documentation.

The court case between Customs and MP Levaopolo Talatonu as proprieter of Island Freight and Officer Christine Ainuu has been adjourned to 9 December 2013.