Tonga’s Auditor General and the president of the Tokaikolo Christian Church International could face each other in court if their lawyers cannot reach agreement over a claim for wrongful dismissal.
In January this year Dr Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa, who is the kingdom’s chief financial officer, served a writ on the Rev. Liufau Saulala, alleging wrongful dismissal from the Church and claiming almost $TOP200,000 in damages.
Dr Tu’i’onetoa served the writ in his capacity as a private citizen.
In his writ, he claims he was wrongfully dismissed from his position as a lay preacher and trainee deacon and excommunicated to stop him questioning the Church’s finances.
Court documents filed by Dr Tu’i’onetoa list efforts to get church members to buy quack medicine, failed business ventures, questionable loans, impossible claims about overseas investments and associations with people who were later prosecuted by Australian and American financial authorities.
The Tokaikolo Church split in two last year following sexual and financial scandals.
Dr Tu’i’onetoa asked the court to order Rev. Saulala and the church to produce audited financial records for the five years from 2007-2008.
In his writ, he claims that he was wrongfully dismissed from his position as lay preacher and trainee deacon and wrongfully excommunicated by the church.
He has also sought a declaration from the court on a claim of defamation against the Church’s newspaper.
The writ was served on January 22. Rev. Saulala had 28 days in which to respond.
The writ said that if Rev. Saulala failed to satisfy the claim or to file a defence within the time stated, Dr Tu’ionetoa could obtain judgment without farther notice.
If Rev. Saulala fights the claim, it does not have to be tried in front of a jury.
This week Dr Tu’i’onetoa told Kaniva News the matter was being handled by his lawyer Posesi Bloomfield and Rev Saulala’s legal representative, William Clive Edwards Jr.
He said Edwards had asked for more time to prepare a response.
In the court documents, Dr Tu’ionetoa claimed he was not given an opportunity to respond to the charges brought against him.
He said he first discovered the move to dismiss him when he attended the meeting and saw an agenda item proposing his dismissal. Statements filed with the court claim the item had not been brought up from the village council as required by the Constitution.
At a Church village meeting on November 18, 2012, chaired by Rev. Siosaia Taufa, Dr Tu’i’onetoa repeatedly and strongly questioned the financial dealings of the Church. He strongly questioned the lack of transparency regarding its financial affairs. During a heated exchange Dr Tu’i’onetoa said “shit” (t_’e) once.
Rev Saulala cited this as a reason for dismissing Dr Tu’i’onetoa, saying he had “sinned.”
Dr Tu’i’onetoa said his dismissal was calculated to stop him questioning the church’s financial matters.
He was expelled from the body of the Church at a Kolomotu’a congregation meeting on September 26, 2013. He alleged the dismissal did not follow a proper hearing and adjudication as set out by the Church’s Constitution. The reason for dismissal was not a criteria for dismissal as set out in the church’s constitution.
In the writ, Dr Tu’i’onetoa said he had been publicly humiliated by the dismissal and the charges against him.
At the time of the meeting, Dr Tu’i’onetoa was overseas and was not aware of the meeting. He was not given an opportunity to be heard or to respond to the charges against him.
He said he was told he was dismissed because he had locked the Kolomotu’a church building following a morning Sunday service on 18 August, 2013.
The Auditor General had been a member of the Tokaikolo Christian Church for 35 years. He was dismissed following a District Meeting chaired by Dr Saulala December 26, 2012.
Among his other positions with the church, he was a member of the Church’s general conference and treasurer for the Church’s Kolomotu’a congregation.
From 1980 to 1984 Dr Tu’i’onetoa taught economics and accounting at the Church’s Lavengamalie College. He paid for textbooks for the school library, worked after hours from his Government job and went without pay for three years.
In 2008, Dr Tu’i’onetoa and three other church members borrowed TOP$202,600 from the Tong Development Bank to pay for buildings for the Kolomotu’a congregation.
On the day the church was opened he donated TOP$50,000 to pay off the construction loan and paid the TOP$5,000 cultural gift for the Guest of Honor, Noble Vaha’i.
During his membership of the Church, Dr Tu’i’onetoa contributed an average TOP$5,000 to the Church each year.
Rev. Saulala is the treasurer, as well as the president of the Church. He is also publisher and editor of the Church’s bilingual newspaper Ofa ki Tonga.
The Church began as the Tokaikolo Christian Fellowship, which was founded by the Rev. Senituli Koloi in 1978.
In the mid-1970s, Rev. Koloi, who was then a member of the Free Wesleyan Church and President of the Scripture Union of Tonga, held prayer meetings and gave sermons throughout Tonga, urging listeners to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour. This religious concept was new to many Tongans at the time.
After 1978 the Tokaikolo movement was based at ‘Lavengamalie’ in Tofoa left to him by the Piliu family. A college, church hall and other buildings were constructed there.
After Rev. Koloi died, Rev. Saulala claimed that Rev. Koloi had chosen him to lead the movement. From the mid-1980s he began to claim that God wanted him to be leader for life.
The Tokaikolo Christian Fellowship became a Church in 1994 when Rev. Saulala declared himself president of the Tokaikolo Christian Church. In 2007, the Tokaikolo Christian Church’s Board and Constitution were renamed and officially registered under the CharitableTrusts Act (“the Act”) as the Tokaikolo Christian Church International.
Dr Tu’i’onetoa’s writ names the church as the second defendant.
According to its Constitution, the Church is governed by the Council of Elders’ Conference. The Church is made up of country districts that includes ‘districts’ in Tonga, the US, Australia and New Zealand. District meetings are held twice each year for every district of the Church and are presided over by Rev. Saulala.
All congregations on Tongatapu and ‘Eua constitute one district. Districts are made up of village congregations. There are 15 village congregations in Tongatapu and ‘Eua. Kolomotu’a is a village congregation under the Tongatapu district.
In the Tonga 2011 National Census of Population and Housing, 2,533 Tongans affiliated themselves with the Tokaikolo Church.
In July 2013, the Church split after allegations of sexual impropriety and financial mismanagement were made against Rev. Saulala. Significant numbers of church members left to form a new Church called Mo ‘ui Fo ‘ou ‘Ia Kalaisi under the leadership of the Rev. Sione Maile.
The main points
Tonga’s Auditor General, Dr Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa, acting in a private capacity,has served a writ on the head of the Tokaikolo Christian Church International, Rev. Liufau Saulala, alleging wrongful dismissal from the church.
In his writ, he claims that he was wrongfully dismissed from his position as lay preacher and trainee deacon and wrongfully expelled from the body of the church.
In the writ, Dr Tu’i’onetoa claims he was dismissed to stop him questioning the church’s finances.
Court documents filed by Dr Tu’i’onetoa include allegations of attempts to get church members to buy quack medicine, failed business ventures, questionable loans, impossible claims about overseas investments and associations with people who were later prosecuted by Australian and American financial authorities.
The Tokaikolo Church split last year amidst sexual and financial scandals.
Dr Tu’i’onetoa is seeking substantial financial damages.