Cabinet Minister Lavulavu and husband plead not guilty; ‘suspicious activities’ detected on ‘Unuaki institute register, AG claims

Cabinet Minister Akosita Lavulavu and his husband ex-Cabinet Minister ‘Etuate Lavulavu have pleaded not guilty to charges relating to knowingly dealt with forged documents and obtaining credit by false pretences.

(L-R) ‘Etuate Lavulavu and ‘Akosita Lavulavu

The couple made their first appearance in court on April 12 after the charges were laid by the Crown Law Office.

The investigation was prompted by the Auditor General’s office claiming hundreds of students supposedly attending the Unuaki ‘o Tonga Royal Institute (UTRI) could not be identified and that the Institute should repay TP$553,800 to the Technical Vocational Education and Training fund (TVET).

Police charged the couple with using forged documents to support an application to obtain supplementary government funding to assist students at their UTRI private school.

The Lavulavus’ lawyer William Clive Edward Jnr told the court the couple allegedly used the grant legally, the Kakalu ‘O Tonga newspaper reported.

Akosita claimed the money was used to pay for a loan made to pay the teachers, it reported.

UTRI former acting principal Mele Tovi, who worked at the school from 2011 until 2016 told the court there were a number of options for the students to pay their tuition fees. These included paying by cash, donating Tongan handicrafts or doing voluntary works for the school.

The Auditor General Sefita Tangi told Supreme Court Judge Nicholas Cooper his auditors have detected suspicious activities (“me’a ngali kehe”) while they were auditing the UTRI register, the Kakalu said of Tangi.

Tangi told the court 283 students enrolled at the UTRI during semester one of 2013.

Under the government grants, each student was required to complete a form but it appeared some of the forms were filled by somebody else.

The Auditor General also alleged some of the names appeared on the UTRI register were people from the Tonga Post who were sent to do surveys as part of the government organisation’s attempt to install mail boxes at residential addresses.

‘Etuate was the Minister of Infrastructure at the time.

Some of the names appeared on the UTRI’s roll appeared to be fake while some real names were identified but those students did not attend UTRI. Tangi said this was supported by further inquiries conducted by the auditors in villages at which these students lived.

The auditors also traced one of the names in the register and found out he was a teacher teaching at ‘Apifo’ou College. He allegedly told the auditors he never enrolled at the UTRI, the report said.

The court was told the auditors found 105 names in the register which were allegedly not students of the UTRI during the period between 2013 and 2015. It has been claimed some of these names were performers of the UTRI floor show group.

Some students were enrolled before they left UTRI but it appeared their names were not removed from the roll when the auditors were investigating the school register.

One of the auditors, Popua Mafi, told the court the school has computerised system for its roll and it made it difficult for them to trace students’ names, the report said.

The Auditor General reportedly told the court some names found on the UTRI roll were the same with the names of students studying at the ‘Ahopanilolo Technical Institute.

The hearing continued since last week and the prosecutors are expected to call more witnesses.

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