Heavy earth moving equipment that had been impounded for non-payment of freight costs was removed at the request of Prime Minister Dr Pōhiva Tu’onetoa so it could be included in a ‘blessing ceremony’ in the Hahake District, Tongatapu.
As Kaniva News reported earlier, the machinery belongs to New Zealand-based Tongan business man Sione Foaki Fifita, who has strong family connection with Prime Minister Tu’i’onetoa.
Last week Fifita said the government had agreed to pay for his shipping costs from the money the government would pay him for the contract it awarded to him to build roads and work on the foreshore and causeway in Ha’apai.
However, the freight charges of $110,025 were not paid and the equipment, which included a Mack Tractor Unit, Komatsu Excavator and a D8R Bulldozer, was held at the wharf.
The New Zealand-based Friend Islands Freight company attempted to seize the machinery for the second time, after the Tonga government failed to pay the freight costs.
Its director Angina Fīnau previously told Kaniva News he was baffled by the government’s failure to keep to its promise which hugely affected his business.
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The company’s lawyer, Nalesoni Tupou, told Kele’a Voice this morning Wednesday 13 that arrangements had been made to seize the equipment in Tongatapu, but when company representatives arrived at the holding area, they discovered the heavy machinery had already been shipped to the Ha’apai Islands.
Tupou said it was difficult to maintain and support the equipment in Ha’apai because it lacked proper tools and facility to house it.
Tupou claimed the Friendly Islands Freight was not alone as another freight company was chasing another government contractor which shipped its heavy equipment from New Zealand to Tonga using its services.
That company was also awarded one of the contracts to build roads under the Prime Minister’s controversial multi-million road project.
Tupou said it took months for that company to pursue the government contractor before the debts were paid in November last year. Tupou said he would not go into details about that case.
Tupou complained Hon. Tu’i’onetoa did not respond to his repeated attempts to contact him.
He criticised Hon Tu’i’onetoa for allegedly authorising in a letter to the Friendly Islands Freight, the release of the machinery on the condition that the government would pay for it later.
Tupou accused Hon Tu’i’onetoa of showing favouritism in the letter to Finau and asked which law allowed the Prime Minister to authorise the release of the machinery to be displayed in his blessing and prayer service while other people had to pay their freight charges first.
The letter appears to have been signed by Ministry of Customs’ CEO Kelemete Vahe on September 4, 2020.
The text of the letter says:
I am writing to inform your good office that the Prime Minister Dr Pohiva Tu’onetoa requested the immediate release of the above shipment today so that the heavy machinery be included in the blessing ceremony that will be conducted tomorrow at Hahake District. I was also advised that Ministry of Finance is currently processing the payment of the freight cost of the shipping and hopefully it will be ready by early next week.
I fully support the release of the said machinery on the condition that the payment must be made before the closing of the business on Friday 11 Sept 2020.
Failure to honour such payment your good office is hereby urged to forfeit the machinery until the freight charges are fully settled.“
The Prime Minister and Minister of Finance had been contacted for comment.