KPPA and other stains on the new Marape government

New Prime Minister James Marape has loudly trumpeted his commitment to fight corruption and he has vowed an Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) will soon be established.

But actions speak louder than words.

After all, Peter O’Neill came to power making very similar promises.

Indeed, the exact same commitment to establish an ICAC was the centrepiece of O’Neill’s rhetoric from day one. It was included in both the Alotau Accords (I and II) and the National Anti-Corruption Strategy.

Yet, for all the talk, nothing was ever delivered.

Marape was voted into power on 30 May, so we should not jump to judge too quickly. But it is concerning that after more than two full months in power we are still waiting to see a draft ICAC law published and we are still waiting to hear who has been appointed to chair the UBS/Oil Search Commission of Inquiry.

Meanwhile, corrupt institutions that even the previous O’Neill government promised to shut down, seemingly have a new lease of life under the new government.

It is claimed Minister for Housing Justin Tkatchenko is reviving the notorious National Housing Estate Limited.

Is new Housing Minister Justin Tkatchenko reviving the National Housing Estate Limited?

NHEL is a body that PNGi has previously exposed for its misdeeds and it was none other than James Marape himself, as Minister for Finance, who supposedly signed the company’s death warrant in 2017.

Meanwhile, Minister for Petroleum Kerenga Kua, is also playing with fire.

He has been holding high-level meetings with the disgraced Chief Executive Officer of the Konebada Petroleum Park Authority, Donald Valu.

KPPA has attracted widespread criticism.

In 2017, the National Research Institute was the first to ask whether the whole organisation might not just be a scam, created to defraud the public purse and customary landowners.

Deeper research published by PNGi revealed the Public Accounts Committee had long condemned the KPPA for its financial mismanagement and pointed to a whole range of irregular transactions and governance weaknesses.

This was soon followed by further revelations.

First PNGi exposed that in a single year, 2016, KPPA had apparently spent 50% of its K5.6 million government appropriation on hire cars. Eighteen different firms were the beneficiaries, one alone receiving K580,000.

Image: KPPA Car Hire Payments 2016

PNGi then exposed several more layers of controversy, involving further mysterious corporate sales and purchases, links to Hong Kong and China, life-long appointments, possible conflicts of interest and potential breach of PNG’s strict citizenship laws.

Then serious allegations of fraud and mismanagement were made against the KPPA Chief Executive Officer, Donald Valu.

Those allegations were given even greater weight in April this year, when PNGi exclusively revealed a Ministerial Briefing Paper which states that

“On the January 13th 2019, Finance Department filed a non-compliance civil proceedings against the CEO of KPPA, Donald Valu in the National Court for non-compliance to statutory financial instructions in accordance to PFMA and alleged misappropriation of the Petroleum Park Authority Funds totalling over K13m during the periods 2010 to 2015”.

Given this very public history, it is perhaps not surprising a number of attempts have been made to abolish the KPPA. Since 2017, the National Executive Council has variously ordered its abolition, ordered its senior management be investigated and ordered its functions be divided up between Kumul Petroleum Holdings Limited and Treasury.

Yet, despite all these NEC decisions and public revelations, just four weeks ago, on July 9, new Petroleum Minister Kerenga Kua invited Valu and his cronies to give a presentation to him at the Hideaway Hotel.

Although the Minister also invited KPPA staff members – who have been patiently waiting for their retrenchment since November 2017 – to attend the briefing, when they arrived they were told they were not welcome and had to leave. Yet, it is alleged, former Treasurer and Finance Minister Don Polye was allowed into the meeting and took a seat right alongside Valu.

Also present were Ori Avea, KPPA Executive Manager Corporate Services and co-signatory to KPPA funds, Samuel Pepena, Managing Director of KPPA subsidiary Petroleum Parks Holding Limited, and two former Department of Petroleum and Energy staff members, Kepsey Puiye, former acting Secretary, and Channan Kumalau, a previous Director Corporate Services. 

Since the meeting with the Minister, Valu has continued to hold office as if nothing is amiss and he is still in full charge of a functioning institution. He has even issued a letter of termination to one staff member, while telling other staff by email to:

“Please wait patiently as we get KPPA back to normalcy under the new Minister Kua and Prime Minister Marape’s Government”. 

When we see government decisions to abolish outlaw organisations being ignored or quietly stepped over, and very serious allegations of fraud not been referred to the police, it is easy to see the game that is being played.

Sometimes media exposure and public disgust can create so much pressure on an issue that politicians are forced to be seen to be taking seemingly decisive action. But then, as with both the National Housing Estate Limited and the Konebada Petroleum Park Authority, the issue can quickly fade from the public consciousness. And, in truth, nothing is ever done, decisions are ignored, or worse, quietly reversed and those who have been scoffing at the feeding bowl quietly resume their feasting.

The stains on the Marape government are already appearing and until we see action on an ICAC, action on the UBS/Oil Search COI and see that organisations like NHEL and KPPA finally disappear and their leadership facing criminal charges, those stains will only grow.

In the meantime, we should all fear that our new Prime Minister is not at the helm of a new government at all, that the deckchairs have simply been rearranged on the decks of a sinking ship and that in Papua New Guinea it is business as usual for a corrupt political elite and the hungry mouths they feed.