THE COURT REPORT
Men of faith and education use charity to steal K7 million
PNGi has been profiling convicts reported to be roaming free in the Leave of Absence scandal rocking the nation’s prison system. Today we document the crimes of disgraced Western Province Governor, Ati Wobiro, and his co-conspirators, who used a charitable vehicle to steal K7 million from the long suffering people of Western Province. The moral of the tale is that neither education or faith are a safeguard against corruption.
In 2016, the Governor for Western Province, Ati Wobiro, and two co-conspirators, were convicted of misappropriation and fraud along with two associates. The case offers a window into how three highly educated men, used deceptive vehicles to syphon off public funds in order to build a political empire in one the nation’s most beleaguered provinces.
The stolen money was used, in part, to pay the election officials and scrutineers who helped Ati Wobiro get elected, in addition to “lavish spending” on computers, furniture and other consumer items.
The state also claims in its case against the three that inflated construction projects for the Church were employed to misappropriate public money, for the benefit of the defendants.
Lets look first at the biographies of the three conspirators charged with fraud and misappropriation.
Ati Wobiro has a Masters Degree in Economics from the prestigious Manchester University, in the UK and another Masters Degree in Development Administration from the Australia National University. He has an impressive professional resume, seemingly distinguished by erudition, civic contribution and faith:
- Lecturer in management at the University of Papua New Guinea;
- Provincial Planner, Western Province Administration;
- Program Development Manager, World Vision International;
- Executive Manager for Finance and Corporate Planning with the Papua New Guinea; Telecommunications Authority;
- Lecturer in economics at the Papua New Guinea University of Technology.
- Church Elder, Evangelical Church of Papua
Wobiro was elected Governor of Western Province in 2012.
Norman May is a successful businessman, and according to the state in its case against the three conspirators, he is also the Political Advisor to Governor Wobiro.
Finally, Dr Modowa Gumoi is a researcher and administrator. He holds a Masters Degree in Economics from New England University in New South Wales, and a PhD from Lincoln University, in Christchurch, New Zealand. According to the state, he is Governor Wobiro’s Economic Adviser. Dr Gumoi was also at the time, Western Province Provincial Administrator and Chair of the Joint Provincial Planning and Budget Priorities Committee (JPP & BPC).
According to his boss, Ati Wobiro: ‘Dr Gumoi is a fine man; he’s a Christian man and is very well experienced because he has worked for different organisations, including teaching at the University of Papua New Guinea’.
Before being flayed in the National Court by Justice Ipang for misappropriation and fraud, all three men were the subject of numerous corruption allegations.
On 4 June 2012, the Post-Courier reported that Norman May and Brian Wyborn, through My Home Development Limited illegally acquired 35 hectares of land held under the care of the Public Curator. One of the contracts of sale was allegedly witnessed by Ati Wobiro.
A year later on 9 July 2013, Dr Modowa Gumoi was arrested and charged with one count of misappropriation, relating to K500,000 belonging to the Western Provincial Administration.
Matters went from bad to worse later that year. In an article published by the Post Courier on 13 December former provincial administrator, William Goinau, alleged that K36 million had been misapplied by Governor Ati Wobiro and Dr Gumoi. The Post-Courier reported that a range of projects were allegedly funded in violation of the Public Finance Management Act, including:
- Daru beautification project (K2,600,000 to May Fuels Distributors Ltd, a company 100% owned by Norman May);
- Daru sanitation and garbage (K2,286,917 to May Fuels Distributors Ltd, a company 100% owned by Norman May);
- Air Services (K5,500,000 to Niugini Aviation Services Ltd);
- Daru office and accommodation (K2,900,000 to Hardware Haus);
- Governor’s scholarship program to various institutions;
- Insurance services (K2,996,109 to Southern Cross Assurance Ltd);
- Legal services (K4,000,000 to Posman Kua Aisi lawyers); and
- Unknown services (K3,000,000 to KBB Oceania Ltd).
It appears none of these accusation were ever verified in Court. However, a seemingly more innocuous payment made to a charitable body did come under judicial scrutiny.
According to the Defendants (Wobiro, May, Gumoi) , following a JPP & BPC meeting on the 23rd of March 2013, Fly Care Foundation was appointed a private partner of the state. In this role it would help administer funds for worthwhile projects in Western Province, which it would then monitor.
PNGi has acquired the minutes of a Fly Care Foundation Board meeting held at the May family residence. It lists the foundation’s key office holders, which includes:
- Norman May (Chairman)
- Aiede May (President)
- Chalmers Tabua (Vice President)
- Timil L Tape (Interim Secretary)
- Billy Jerry (Treasurer – note Court records suggest he was replaced by Vicky Sariman)
- Lesly Omaro (Editor)
Timil L Tape was also contracted as the Foundation’s sole consultant. Tape is cited in court records as Deputy Registrar of Companies at the Investment Promotion Authority.
Document: Fly Care Foundation Inc Meeting Minutes, 3 January 2013
The Court held that the meeting on the 23rd of March 2013 referred to by the defendants in fact did not take place. It also concluded the subsequent agreement – allegedly put together by Timil Tape – with the Fly Care Foundation was illegal, owing to breaches of the Public Finance (Management) Act 1995 with respect to procurement & tendering processes.
In total K7,060,000.00 drawn down from the Provincial Service Improvement Program was paid to Fly Care Foundation’s Bank of South Pacific account without a public tender. Justice Ipang notes that Fly Care Foundation was a newly established charity, with no permanent staff, and was hardly equipped to provide extensive financial management services to the provincial administration.
Of the K7 million, K350,000 was laundered through a Chinese company New Century Ltd, ostensibly to help support an informal sector business program. In fact, the court concluded, it was used to pay scrutineers and election officials used by Goveno Ati Wobiro in his campaign to gain office. There is no evidence that New Century was a knowing party to the crime.
Further moneys paid to Wipi Development Association in order to build a feeder road, an organisation led by a local Baptist Pastor, the court found was spent on computers, furniture, stationary and music.
All three defendants were, as a result, convicted.
While the defence argued for a leniency, on the grounds this was not a serious crime, Governor Wobiro was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.
Take away points from this scandal – once cross referenced with other cases reported on by PNGi – include:
- Education is no defence against corruption. The conspirators were highly educated men with Masters and a PhD.
- Religion and faith is no defence against the lures of corruption.
- Charities, developlment associations and businesses alike, are used to launder money – there is no ‘safe’ institutional space in the country.
- Provincial and District Service Improvement Programs are looted by corrupt officials, robbing the public of essential goods and services.
- Funds looted from the public coffer are used to support election campaigns for corrupt politicians – so that they then have the opportunity to loot even more money through inflated contracts awarded in breach of public tendering requirements.
- The Public Finance Management Act and other regulations remain essential safeguards against corruption. Breaches of this Act need to be treated with utmost seriousness.
- Those punished for corruption, appear to use their power and status, to obtain special treatment – such as leaves of absences from prison.