The Tonga government says it has paid US$6.25 million into two accounts with the Bank of America and the Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank for the purchase of a new aircraft for Lulutai Airlne.
The concerns about the purchase came after the De Havilland Twin Otter failed to arrive in Tonga, despite a promise by Lulutai airlines chief executive Poasi Tei that it was on its way.
The government has been accused of continuing to make decisions about Lulutai airlines “in secrecy”, failing to inform Parliament about its plan to buy the aircraft, the Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to answer questions from MPs and his failure to submit any financial statements for the Lulutai airlines to Parliament.
Tongatapu 4 MP Māteni Tapueluelu said the Prime Minister had confirmed in Parliament the government had purchased a new aircraft.
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The MPs questions were made in the wake of a report by Kaniva News in early August that the government was purchasing the Twin Otter aircraft. Our report also said the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs had awarded a tender for the maintenance of the aircraft.
Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku, who was accused of providing misleading information in Parliament and failing to respond to questions from MPs, regarding the purchase of the aircraft, finally confirmed the purchase in August.
Hon. Tapueluelu said he immediately asked Hon. Hu’akavameiliku to provide evidence of the purchase. He said the PM submitted a document which appeared to show the purchase was fully paid for.
“The validity of that document of evidence is still being questioned,” Hon. Tapueluelu said.
He said the document showed the payment was made into two different bank accounts.
It provided information which raised question about the validity of the bank accounts and whether they were indeed the correct digital characters and account code used by the banks, Hon. Tapueluelu said.
Kaniva News has seen a copy of what appears to be a letter of proof of purchase of the aircraft. It was sent from what appeared to be a financial controller at the Veiling Aircraft Leasing Ltd to CEO Tei on August 11.
The letter “acknowledged receipt of funds” and listed the details of its bank accounts and invoices thereunder. It included this information:
Invoice reference: VAL-06-2223 dated 5th May 2023.
Amount received: US$2,000,000.
Date credited: 1st June 2023.
Beneficiary name: Veiling Aircraft leasing Ltd.
Bank Name: Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank.
Bank account Number: AE02003001 1299357920002
The letter also listed the details of the second payment as follows:
Invoice reference: VAL-01-2324 dated 10th August 2023.
Amount received: USD$4, 50,000.
Date credited: 14 August 2023.
Account credited: McAfee & Taff Escrow Account (Acting as Escrow Agent for Veiling Aircraft leasing Ltd).
Bank Name : Bank of America.
Bank Account number: 07160156205
Veiling group has been listed as being founded in 2002 with a mission to offer “innovative and responsive solutions to our aviation partners by engaging, empowering and retaining the best talent to build strong and profitable relationships”.
The company describes itself as focused on key businesses in leasing, sales and remarketing of commercial airliners and executive jets, aircraft asset management and structured finance.
The Veling Group is headquartered in Mauritius, with offices in Dubai and team members in the USA, China, France and Russia.
Hon. Tapueluelu said this was why he criticised the Speaker and the Prime Minister’s move in Parliament to stop the Opposition from debating and responding to the Prime Minister’s written answers to queries about the aircraft purchase raised in his vote of no confidence motions last month. The Prime Minister survived the confidence motion.
Hon. Tapueluelu said if MPs had been allowed to debate the issue before the vote they may have helped clarify the lingering doubts which have been swirling in the community about the purchase of the aircraft.
Aircraft expert comments
Hon. Tapueluelu’s comments came after Kaniva News contacted some experts in aircraft engineering and sales asking whether they had any knowledge about the aircraft Tonga had purchased.
Some who did not want to be identified, as they did not want to be seen as getting involved in the political side of this deal, said the aircraft was currently in China and had allegedly been grounded since 2018.
They said the five-year period of the aircraft’s inactivity from 2018 to 2023 should have been a concern for Tonga because aircraft parts had certain timeframes which require replacements when they were expired.
An expert said he was surprised after he learnt the money was paid in full while the aircraft was sitting in China.
He said that from his experience the payment should have been deposited part by part in a process in which Tonga should only deposit the last portions of payment when the aircraft arrived in the kingdom or departed China.
It is understood the aircraft was inspected as part of the purchase. However, it is believed the person who inspected the aircraft was sent by the aircraft agent.
“The interest of the agent is to sell the aircraft while at the same time Tonga should have done their own inspection to make sure the aircraft is safe according to New Zealand safety rules and requirements which apply in Tonga,” an expert said.
“Some parts of the aircraft are calendar time, meaning after two or three years they have to be replaced, no matter whether the aircraft is in operation or is being grounded”, the expert claimed.
He said Tonga should have been involved very closely with the inspection process to make sure it did not spend extra money to replace the parts once the aircraft arrived in Tonga.
“Tonga should know about this and should have asked the seller to replace such parts of the aircraft because the aircraft was not a brand new”.
In a letter dated August 14 sent to the Parliament’s Chief Secretary, Tei claimed Veiling and Lulutai Airlines had signed the “Sale and Purchase Agreement”.
He also said the aircraft would arrive in Tonga last month.
The expert said he had information that the aircraft would be dismantled and sent to Tonga by sea through a shipping container.
The expert said if this was true it was not a wise decision as the assembly process would take months.
Kaniva News has contacted Tei for comment this morning. He said he would update the media towards the end of the week.
We asked if he could provide us with a copy of the aircraft’s sale and purchase agreement and what step by step process he took before he paid the money for the aircraft.
We also asked him to tell us when will the aircraft arrive in Tonga.
Tei previously said he would update Kaniva News after we questioned him about the arrival of the new aircraft, but we did not receive any further information.