Two workers jailed for stealing cyclone relief aid

Opetaia and Malua leaving court after sentencing.

Opetaia and Malua leaving court after sentencing.

Alan Ah Mu

APIA: TUESDAY 29 OCTOBER 2013: Humanitarian aid worth thousands of tala donated for cyclone relief were stolen by two Red Cross Society workers.

A review by Red Cross revealed that aid items were missing and an internal investigation traced the cause to Malua Tauali’i Fiso, 23, a casual worker for the Water Sanitarian Programme of the society.

It also led to Opetaia Opetaia, 34, manager of the same programme.

Both were fired.

Charges of theft as a servant were laid against both when the Police were called in.

After Cyclone Evan struck in December 2012, relief aid were donated through Red Cross from overseas, which the society used for recovery efforts.

Fiso, single, of Tafua-tai and Papauta and Opetaia, 34, of Aele and Patamea, married with three children, took advantage of their positions in the society to steal from the society between January and March of this year.

As we all know it was a time of great hardship to the country, Justice Vui Clarence Nelson said.

In that period Fiso, who pleaded guilty to five counts of theft as a servant, took and sold five Rota water tanks each with a capacity of 500 litres.

Worth $2 750 each he sold the tanks at greatly discounted prices: one for $800 in March, another in February to a man in Savalalo for $130, another for $140 in March, and two more for $500.

The tanks were worth $15 750 in total.

Opetaia pleaded guilty to two counts of theft as a servant.

In January this year he took lengths of timber, bags of cement roofing iron, sheets of plywood and brackets – building material worth $1 760.

In January too he took and sold at Vaitele, a 500 litre Rota water tank worth $2 750.

Opetaia stole aid worth $5 846 in all.

Court policy for punishment in instances of workers who steal from their employers is well known, said Justice Nelson.
It is normally a term of imprisonment.

“The law will not tolerate this sort of behaviour which is far too common in our country,” the Judge said.

In this instance where humanitarian aid was stolen, there is every reason not to depart from court policy, he said.

In effect Fiso and Opetaia did not steal from the Red Cross, they stole from the people who needed the aid, he said.

In Fiso’s case, he used the money from the sales for his own benefit.

The buyers of the items who suspected them to have been stolen should also have been charged but was a matter for the Police to consider, said Justice Nelson.

That the items stolen were cyclone relief made the offences worse.

“That aggravates your offending,” said Justice Nelson.

Especially for Opetaia who as holder of a senior job in Red Cross was in a position of trust, he said.

In the circumstances of Fiso’s case sentencing was started at three years with 12 months subtracted for guilty plea and remorse and six month removed for his previous good character.

He was convicted and sentenced to 18 months jail for each of the five charges.

All of the sentences are to be served at the same time.

Though the value of the goods Opetaia stole was less than that taken by Fiso, he was deemed to have carried a greater degree of responsibility because of his position at the time.

Factors considered in his favour were his guilty plea and previous good character.

He was convicted and sentenced to 18 months jail for each of the two charges of theft as a servant he pleaded guilty to.
Both terms are to be served concurrently (at the same time) too so that he will serve 18 months total.

Justice Nelson said the defendants were fortunate because their offences were committed when the maximum penalty for theft as a servant was seven years of imprisonment.

It is now 10 years of imprisonment, he said.