Health leak reveals how major corruption investigations stall

Corruption in Papua New Guinea is, as the late Prime Minister Mekere Morauta famously invoked, both systemic and systematic.

Despite the widespread and corrosive nature of the problem, there are still some honest public officials trying to stem the tide by investigating and prosecuting those who unjustly enrich themselves.

It is an uphill struggle. At every turn those who want to challenge the current status quo face unprecedented obstructions and obfuscations when trying to bring matters before the courts for judicial scrutiny, as today’s PNGi investigation into the murky world of health procurement highlights.

PNGi has received a batch of internal correspondence from the Department of Health. The correspondence gives a unique insight into how corruption investigations can be undermined.

At the centre of this controversy is senior Health Department official, Paul Dopsie, who stands accused by private sector contractor, Harupe Peke, of extorting significant bribes. According to Peke he was initially bullied into withdrawing his allegation but fronted the Public Accounts Committee in 2019 to reinstate his serious claim.

While this is only one instance, among many, of serious corruption allegations levelled against senior Health Department officials, it is among the most public and explicit. It is a matter of the highest concern then that this bellwether case has become bogged down in factional infighting within the public service.

The internal documents reveal not just different Departments fighting on opposing sides, but how senior officers within an organisation, the Police Commissioner and a Detective Chief Inspector, can end up fighting from different corners. In the middle are the adjudicators, the courts, whose attempts to administer justice depends on the quality of the submissions and evidence presented to them, which appears to be wanting.

The upshot is that arguably one of the most important cases of alleged corruption in the past decade, which goes into the epicentre of public health procurement, may end in no definitive result and no clarity after years of hand-wringing.

Initial allegations

In February 2018, PNGi exposed serious corruption allegations against a senior Department of Health manager.

According to, Harupe Peke, the owner of a logistics company contracted by the Department of Health to distribute medical kits, his company was forced to pay bribes in order to get its invoices paid.

Specifically, it was alleged that between December 2014 and September 2016, a total of K265,500 was paid in cash to Mr Paul Dopsie, the Executive Manager for Corporate Services in the Department of Health, in order for him to facilitate the payment of company invoices.

The allegations were set out in a letter to the Secretary of the Department of Health dated February 2017.

In November 2017, a ‘Special Audit’ report on the Department of Health, ordered by the Department of the Prime Minister, revealed widespread failures throughout the medical supply and distribution chain, which are enduring problems that had not been substantively addressed over several years.

Included in the ‘Factual Finding Report’ was commentary on the allegations made against Mr Dopsie.

According to the report the Health Secretary had failed to independently investigate the allegation to confirm its authenticity and had not provided any appropriate response to the complainant. The report also noted the allegations had not been referred to the NDoH’s Internal Audit Branch for their attention.

Instead, in October 2017, the complainant alleges he was forced to write a letter withdrawing his claims after Mr Dopsie threatened his company would not be considered for a renewal of its contract, unless he complied.

The ‘Special Audit’ recommended ‘further investigation into official corruption allegations lodged against Mr. Dopsie’. The report notes bribery and extortion could ‘have contributed to the medical supplies shortages and other related problems currently faced by the health facilities in the country’.

It also recommended Dopsie be immediately suspended from office ‘so a full investigation’ could be completed.

There, it seems, the matter rested until the Public Accounts Committee decided to undertake its own investigation into the national shortage of medical drugs and equipment.

The Public Accounts Committee Inquiry

In 2019, as public anger over the shortages of drugs and other medical supplies across the country intensified, the Public Accounts Committee conducted an investigation into Department of Health procurement and distribution.

After 20 years of complaints, scandals, shortages and unnecessary deaths, the nation was transfixed by the public hearings which were lived streamed on national television.

Included among the issues investigated by the committee was the case of Mr. Paul Dopsie and the allegations of corruption first revealed by PNGi.

Health Secretary Pascoe Kase told the committee he had not taken any action against Mr Dopsie because he had been advised that the complaints had been withdrawn because they were exaggerated and untrue. Kase said following the Special Audit and in the light of its findings he had requested support from the Finance Secretary to investigate the allegations. According to Kase ten months later  the Department of Finance advised him the allegations had been withdrawn.

In his evidence to the inquiry, Peke admitted that he had withdrawn his complaint for a second time after the Special Audit had revived the allegations, but maintained he had again been coerced and threatened. Peke told the committee that in October 2018, he was summoned to a meeting at the Department of Finance. In that meeting an official, named as Moses Puli, had threatened that if he did not withdraw his complaint then he and his family would be arrested and his contract with the Department of Health would be cancelled.

Peke also told the inquiry that after withdrawing his allegations the first time his company was awarded a new contract and after that had not encountered any difficulties in getting invoices paid.

Peke however used the occasion to restate the initial allegations, which were supported by his colleague Basil Roma. Roma informed the Public Accounts Committee ‘I went with my boss (Peke) and withdrew the K20,000 from the Westpac Bank. I remember it was around 1.40pm when we drove to the Stanley Hotel car park to meet with Dopsie. He was not happy with the K20,000 and wanted K50,000 more’.

Following the new revelations at the Public Accounts Committee hearings, Mr Dopsie was finally suspended from office pending police investigations.

New revelations

Now, almost two-years on from his suspension from office, and more than four-and-a-half years after Peke made his initial allegations, the Dopsie affair is still unresolved.

A series of government documents show how competing factions and interests within government are fighting over Mr Dopsie’s future.

At the centre of this dispute is the Public Service Commission. It has received an application from Mr Dopsie requesting his reinstatement in the Department of Health.

In support of his application, Dopsie presented two important witnesses. The first is Daniel Rolpagarea, the State Solicitor. The second is Detective Chief Inspector Joel Simatab, Director of Criminal Investigations in the Royal PNG Constabulary.

In January 2021, the State Solicitor provided legal advice to Detective Chief Inspector Joel Simatab on the legality of the performance audit conducted on behalf of the Prime Minister’s Department into the supply and distribution of medical provisions.

It was that audit, that first brought to light the allegations against Mr Dopsie.

The audit was conducted by a private company called FTI Consulting (Australia) Pty Ltd, part of the global FTI business.

The State Solicitor observes, ‘based on the findings of FTI, you [DCI Simatab] now have reasonable grounds to charge and prosecute numerous officers in NDoH and contracted companies for a number of criminal offences’.

However, according the State Solicitor, it was unlawful for the government to engage a private consulting company to audit the performance of NDoH as a public body, and therefore the police cannot act on the findings in the FTI report and prosecute persons named therein.

This devastating legal opinion is set out in a five-page letter dated 11th January 2021.

The opinion is based on the role and responsibility of the Auditor General to audit and report on the public accounts, including the accounts and finances of all government departments and the power of the Auditor General to authorise another person to audit any accounts under his jurisdiction.

According to the State Solicitor, because the Auditor General has the specific power to authorise others to conduct an audit on his behalf, ‘only the Auditor-General can engage another person or corporation, such as FTI, to audit NDoH. No other government body, Minister or even the Prime Minister has the power to do this.

Whether or not the State Solicitor is correct on this point, crucially, he seems to have completely failed to appreciate that the audit conducted by FTI was not a financial audit, an audit of the public accounts, but a performance audit. This is totally outside the remit of the Audit Act.

Although the State Solicitor’s letter does offer up a final piece of advice, that the ‘RPNGC is not precluded from invoking its investigative powers to undertake its own inquiries into the allegations against NDoH’. According to DCI Simatab, those investigations have drawn a blank.

Indeed, DCI Simatab has personally recommended to the Health Secretary Mr Dopsie be reinstated back in his job.

In a letter dated 18 June 2021, DCI Simatab states ‘all efforts to substantiate the claims made by Mr Harupa Peke have been unsuccessful’. According to Simatab, the Department of Finance investigation also cleared Mr Dopsie. He adds, Mr Peke has written to the Police Commissioner ‘withdrawing all criminal complaint [sic]’.

According to DCI Simatab, ‘it would be unethical and unfair for police to continue investigating an allegation whose principal complainant has indicted the desire to discontinue the matter’.

As a result, DCI Simatab recommends that Paul Dopsie be reinstated back to his position in the Health Department.

Armed with the State Solicitors’ legal opinion and the recommendation of DCI Simatab, Mr Dopsie has applied to the Public Service Commission for reinstatement.

An initial oral hearing of the application was held by the Public Service Commission on 24 June 2021 and the matter adjourned.

By letter dated 22 July, the Public Service Commission requested the Secretary for Health provide a Statement of Response in relation to the two letters provided by Mr Dopsie in support of his application. The Secretary was given a 14-day deadline, after which the Commission would proceed to make its determination.

Cop versus cop

In response to the Public Service Commission letter, Health Secretary Dr Osborne Liko, wrote a letter to Commissioner of Police, David Manning. In that letter Dr Liko raises his concerns about the intervention from DCI Simatab and whether the Director Crimes was authorised to recommended Mr Dopsie’s reinstatement.

In his letter, the Health Secretary asks the direct question whether or not the Police Commissioner’s office was aware of DCI Simatap’s recommendation to reinstate Mr Dopsie.

Dr Liko also notes that in his view any such direction should have come from the Commissioner’s office as had occurred in an earlier, November 2020 letter. In that letter the Commissioner had ‘explicitly stated’ the criminal investigation against Mr Dopsie was being conducted by the Special Police Forensic & Criminal Investigation Team (SPFCIT) chaired by Mr Manning as the Police Commissioner.

Dr Liko also noted that the letter from DCI Simatab recommending Mr Dopsie’s reinstatement ‘was not cc’d to your high Office as the Office responsible for Special Forensic Investigation’.

In his letter, Dr Liko also reveals ‘the PSC has raised concerns’ surrounding the opinion from the State Solicitor, although he does not expand on what those concerns are.

The response from the Police Commissioner is quite devastating and completely contradicts the opinion of both DCI Simatab and the State Solicitor.

Police Commissioner David Manning, ‘strongly advises’ the Health Secretary ‘not to reinstate Paul Dopsie’ until the criminal allegations against him ‘are fully cleared’.

“His premature reinstatement at NDOH can negatively affect the smooth flow of the Police investigation and temper [sic] with evidence and the state witnesses’.

Courts brought into play

Perhaps sensing a need to reinforce his position, Paul Dopsie has also recently brought the courts into play.

In an affidavit sworn on 24 May 2021, Dopsie states the Public Service Commission decided on 3rd November 2020 to annul his suspension from office and reinstate him to his former position as Executive Manger Corporate Services. Dopsie says that Public Service Commission decision was based on the fact the original complaint against him had been withdrawn and no charges, either administrative or criminal, have been laid against him.

Dopsie is now aggrieved by the Health Department’s failure to abide by that Public Service Commission decision requiring his reinstatement. Hence he has issued court proceedings, seeking a judicial review and a court order that the Department of Health implement the Public Service Commission decision.

On 10 August, Justice Miviri granted Dopsie leave to pursue a judicial review and enforcement of the Public Service Commission decision.

In making his decision, the judge placed weight on the fact that the compliant against Dopsie had been withdrawn. It appears evidence was not brought to Judge Miviri’s attention that the complainant, Harupe Peke, claims he was in fact coerced into so acting and that Peke has since restated his original allegations to the Public Accounts Committee.

The judge also found that Dopsie has already exhausted all the internal processes and procedures that could assist him to regain his position: “there is evidence beyond the balance required that internal processes has [sic] been exhausted and this ground is upheld in favour of the plaintiff”.

This raises an important question. In making his decision and finding all internal processes had been completed, was the judge aware that the Public Service Commission had met on 24 June to consider Dopsie’s case and that it had adjourned the matter to allow the Health Secretary to make submissions?

Such a meeting by the Public Service Commission could be seen to strongly suggest that Dopsie is still pursuing internal processes at the same time that he is seeking the court’s intervention.

The court has granted Dopsie leave to pursue his judicial review action and the matter will now proceed to a full trial.

According to a report in The National newspaper, that full trial took place on Monday, September 20th, less than six-weeks after the leave decision. That a judicial review action could move from a leave decision to full trial in less than six weeks defies both due legal process and the realities of court scheduling.

It is possible that the reporting is in fact just a misunderstanding of Justice Miviri’s leave decision by a rookie journalist, rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead the public and increase pressure on the Department of Health.

The Paul Dopsie Affair Timeline

The unanswered questions

According to the State Solicitor’s letter revealed above, based on a special audit conducted in 2017, the police have reasonable grounds to charge and prosecute numerous officers in the Department of Health and companies contracted by the Department, for a number of criminal offences.

Yet as the COVID crisis continues to critically expose the deficiencies in our health services, no charges or prosecutions are afoot. Indeed, the one individual who has been repeatedly publicly exposed for alleged bribery and extortion, and whose suspension from office was forced by the weight of public pressure, stands ready to resume his office, not having missed a single pay check.

There are though some specific questions that deserve public answers:

  1.  When granting leave for judicial review was the judge aware that Public Service Commission hearings into Paul Dopsie’s case were still ongoing?
  2.  Does the Solicitor General stand by the legal opinion that the performance audit conducted by FTI was unlawful?
  3.  Why did Detective Chief Inspector  Simatab recommend the reinstatement of Paul Dopsie when police investigations were still ongoing?
  4. Is the Police Commissioner taking any action against DCI Simatab?

There are also some wider and even more serious questions that need to be addressed around why the police investigations of serious allegations of corruption in the Department of Health have taken so long to seemingly progress nowhere, and what steps has the Public Accounts Committee taken to follow up on the implementation of its recommendations following its very public hearings in 2019?

Are the police and the Public Accounts Committee serious about tackling corruption without fear or favour; or are they merely grandstanding, maintaining a public aura of concern while allowing systemic and systematic corruption to flourish?