Customs officer claims defendant in whisky case confessed to him

Defendant Christine Ainu'u who Customs officer testified against.

Defendant Christine Ainu’u.

Alan Ah Mu

APIA: WEDNESDAY 27 NOVEMBER 2013: A Customs officer has claimed a defendant in the court case involving hundreds of smuggled bottles of whisky confessed wrongdoing to him.

Senior Customs Officer Ietitaia Iosia told the District Court that Christine Ainuu confessed she had fabricated documents which falsely described the contents of a container.

Iosia said this included the removal of the signature of Assistant Customs Officer, Josephine Hunt, from a previous document and photocopying it and sticking it onto shipping documents related to the cargo in the container – which was numbered BHCU3078686. Ainuu works for Island Freight at Vaimoso.

Container BHCU3078686 which landed in the country on 19 December last year was taken to the premises of Island Freight as it is a cargo forwarding company.

Together with company director Levaopolo Talatonu Va’ai, Ainuu is on trial for four counts of false declaration and four counts of defrauding Customs.

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

On 7 February at Island Freight to clear other cargo Customs Officer Mika Su’esu’e Te’o saw two boxes being unloaded from a container there into 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 nearby.

The Customs Officer became suspicious when upon sight of him the door of the container was quickly closed.

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.

In reply to his inquiries Ainuu at the office upstairs of the premises told him the container had been empty but was now used by a Jonah Lee to store goods; she didn’t know what the goods were, Te’o said.

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

When it was discovered that a significant number of bottles of whisky were being sold in shops, what Te’o had seen at Vaimoso took on a new light for Ministry of Revenue, of which Customs Services is a part.

It saw his colleagues Ietitaia Iosia and Moimoi Tauave visit Island Freight on 7 March to further investigate the matter – on instructions by another ministry ACEO, Rima Ulu, of border protection and enforcement.

Two days earlier Komisi Koria, Assistant Chief Executive Officer of Legal Services Division in Ministry of Revenue, and Solia Tanuvasa

Kalolo, ACEO of Excise, Warehouse and Liquor Administration Division, had visited to ask Ainuu about container BHCU3078686. Iosia said Ainuu told him and Tauave that Assistance Customs Officer Josephine Hunt had cleared the cargo in the container.

Tauave queried the date on the shipping documents involved – 22 December 2012 – because it was a Saturday and Customs staff do not work then.

Ainuu said Hunt had put down the wrong date, Iosia said.

The cargo shown on the documents comprised of 16 packages, much too small for a container that size, he said.

Te’o had told the court it was a 20-footer.

Levaopolo turned up at the office and Ainuu asked them to leave in case he heard; she would call when Levaopolo had gone, Iosia said.

He said they returned to their office and found out from shipping company TRANSAM that container BHCU3078686 had left the country on 24 February this year on a ship.

Ainuu called for them to return to Island Freight and when there he asked Tauave to stay while he talked to Ainuu alone – which presented a better chance for her to tell the truth, he said.

Iosia said he knew Ainuu from the time they worked for Airport Authority and Maritime and she was a good friend of his wife’s.

Presented with the suspicions about the shipping documents which included that the shipper of the container and the receiver were the same – “It rarely occurs” – Ainuu confessed she had created the documents, the Customs Officer said.

She said she didn’t know bottles of spirits were in the container – which was sent over by Jonah Lee, a friend of Levaopolo who had asked for help.

In the documents she’d created were fictitious cargo and their owners who’d come to collect them; when she put the date 22/12/12 on the documents she didn’t know it fell on a Saturday.

Iosia went further and said Ainuu told him not to tell anybody of her confession, then wrote a cheque for $200 she gave him “to buy a bottle (of beer) with” – which he declined.

They arranged for her to explain what she’d done to the CEO of Ministry of Revenue and their lawyer next day.

But that night she texted to say she won’t turn up – she’d told everything to Levaopolo who’d said to leave everything to him, Iosua said.

Under questioning by Toleafoa Solomona Toailoa, lawyer for Ainuu, the Senior Customs Officer said they’d told Ainuu their visit was a routine inspection of paperwork of cargo, in particular those related to cargo that had arrived for Apia Traders and National Health Services – which Island Freight had handled.

They’d been to TRANSAM, were now at Island Freight and will move on to Freight Plus.

Toleafoa put it to Iosia that telephone communication from Ainuu had to do with documents called CRAs for those cargo – and not with container BHCU3078686.

He accused Iosia of making up evidence against Ainuu in order to collect a reward given to staff members amounting to half the value of smuggled goods they recover.

The lawyer pointed out the estimated duty of the whisky was $200 000 – and that was not to mention the actual value of the cargo.

Details of how false documents can be created were known to the customs officer who applied them to accuse Ainuu in order to get the reward, he said.

The Senior Customs Officer said he did not know the reward existed.

“Thank you for informing me about that,” he told Toleafoa.

Iosia talked alone to Ainuu in order to fabricate evidence against her without Tauave knowing – a tactic Iosia had used in an earlier court case against a Junior Patau, Toleafoa said.

He said Jonah Lee, who holds the matai title of Toleapai from Savai’i Island, sent an email to Island Freight on 11 December 2012 to which

were attached documents about cargo in a container which arrived in the country on 19 December 2012.

Since the attachments were in PDF form Ainuu could not have fabricated shipping documents, the defence counsel argued.

The listed cargo of 12 packages was furniture, washing machines and general goods.

“These are not small things,” Toleafoa said, to indicate they would have fitted into a container of 20 feet in size.

He said his client did not have a cheque account.

Further Ainuu went to the same church as Iosia and so knows he doesn’t drink alcohol. Iosua said he drank when on an invitation.

Te’o Richard Fa’ai’uaso, lawyer for Levaopolo Va’ai, doubted that after 20 years in Revenue did not know of the recovery reward.

In a reply to a question by Attorney General Officer Prosecutor, Leinafo Taimalelagi, Iosia said he had never before received such a reward.

Te’o said the Customs Officer had acted illegally in asking for documents at Island Freight without a warrant.

The trial has been adjourned to 9 December.

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