Momis is the Word on Bougainville

PNGi has recently put a spotlight on provincial administrations across the country. Often overshadowed by the corruption big leagues in Waigani, provincial administrations have proven to be intractable sites of abuse.

Today PNGi turns to the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG).

As Bougainville approaches an independence referendum, won through hardship and sacrifice, its precious public finances are being lost to misappropriation, fraud, and mismanagement.

Now the finger has been pointed at President John Momis in a petition by service providers and ex-combatants. The President stands accused of mismanagement and corruption.

In 2016, a cache of documents accounting for ABG expenditure during 2014 was leaked by concerned civil servants.

This cache reveals that John Momis and his wife Elizabeth Momis benefited from large payments out of the public coffers during 2014.

While this does not prove the current allegations against him. The leak pointed to transactions that require close scrutiny.

Image: Leaked records show lavish spending by the Momis family

Image: Leaked records show lavish spending on the Momis family

Notable  transfers include, significant amounts paid out in allowances, a slew of cash advances, and transfers made to Lady Momis for catering services, travel and car hire.

For example, in a 9 month period at least K159,279 in cash was paid over to President Momis as monetary advances and allowances.

A review of the ABG conducted in 2014 by the Auditor General’s Office (AGO) noted that there was a ‘…lack of adequate policy guidelines and updated control registers [which] had resulted in poor control and monitoring of advances … Consequently, excessive cash and travel advances totalling K2,033,299 and K601,718 respectively were neither registered nor acquitted at year end’.

It is not clear if the large amount of cash advanced to the President has been acquitted – i.e. accounted for. If it hasn’t that would appear an important starting point for any investigation into the President.

Compounding matters, at least K202,976 was spent on travel for President Momis and his wife.

In the previously mentioned 2014 AGO review it was noted: ‘Funds totalling K20,428,345 from the Bougainville Restoration and Development Grant Trust Account were expended on airline tickets, accommodation, hire cars, cash advance, travelling allowance, sitting allowance, wages and overtime, purchase of motor vehicles and other assets which are deemed contrary to the purposes of the trust instruments – the impact projects’.

Again, it is not clear if the funds spent on travel for President Momis and his wife were improperly acquired from a Trust Account. But clearly this is another governance risk that requires further investigation.

Then there is the matter of K24,000 in payments made to Lady Momis for catering services. There is additional car hire invoices from Lady Momis in the amount of K6,000. Finally K17,410 was made in payments to Unity Restaurant, a business which appears to be owned by Lady Momis, according to IPA records.

In total these payments to Lady Momis amount to K47,410. Questions need to be asked now over whether proper procurement processes were observed, and how conflicts of interest were managed.

Last, but certainly not least, on 23 December 2014 there was a single payment of K306,217 made to John Momis for ‘outstanding allowance’. To put this in context, the annual salary for Prime Minister O’Neill in 2014 was K323,399, while an MP’s annual salary amounted to K98,451.

A large single payment for outstanding allowances that is 3 x larger than an MP’s annual salary, requires close scrutiny to determine whether it was proper.

Investigators on Bougainville ought to also see if payments have been made to Temaka Hire Car, Unity Restaurant, and Jemini Cuisines, all of which are businesses, owned or part-owned by Lady Momis. While such payments would not necessarily be illegal, they again would need to be carefully checked to ensure procurement and leadership code requirements had been met.

Besides Momis and his wife, the 2016 ABG leak revealed significant payments from the ABG to a range of foreign companies linked with President Momis. For instance, a third instalment of K2.5 million was made to Chebu Shipping company which was then 50% owned by  Australian national, Fabian Chow, son of the late Sir Henry Chow.

Image: The Momis and Chows at a delivery ceremony

The other 50% was owned by Lawrence Dising who up until 2013 had been Momis’ Chief Administator. When Dising acquired the 50% stake in 2012, he was the ABG’s Chief Administrator.

Large payments were also made to another Chow company, Hakau Investment. It was paid K1.7 million by the ABG during 2014. This came as landowners impacted by the  proposed Torokina Oil Palm Planation project, raised questions over an alleged K10 million payment made to Hakau for a feasibility study.

Another controversy that emerged from the leaked financial report involved a number of payments to the controversial Filipino outfit, Bougainville POGE Development Limited. K320,256 was paid to POGE on the 22 October 2014, at a time when President Momis was listed as a shareholder.

Image: Momis was a POGE shareholder

POGE is connected to another foreign company Seagate Global. Seagate Global claims it is the financial adviser to President Momis. An archived copy of Seagate’s webpage contains the information on their relationship. Strangely, this webpage has now been removed from the internet. So has all reference to the ABG and Bougainville on the Seagate website. The POGE facebook page has also been removed.

Image: When Seagate and President Momis were trusted friends.

All of which might leave the everyday Bougainvillean wondering what ever has happened to all these foreign companies, such as Bougainville POGE, some of whom enjoyed millions in ABG funding.

In his defence, President Momis claims no wrongdoing. He told RNZI:

A number of them [accusers] have been sacked and now they are trying to take revenge, using false accusations, defamatory, character assassination types of tactics to damage the image of the government. Some of their friends are people who are intending to stand in the next ABG elections. So it’s typical of people who are desperate.

In other interviews, the President alleged some of those pointing their finger at him and Lady Momis, are themselves being investigated for corruption after the anti-fraud squad arrived on Bougainville to investigate graft.

President Momis is absolutely right to call for heads to roll, his administration is rotten to the core with corruption. At the same time, this is not a bombshell. It has been rotten for a decade, at least. Eight of those years, the administration was under Momis’ command. Why is it that only on the eve of the referendum has the President woken up to the most serious strategic threat to Bougainville’s likely independence?

Many examples could be pointed to, which demonstrate lethargy on Momis’ part. In 2015, for instance, President Momis appointed Fidelis Semoso Minister for Economic Development, shortly after the National Court implicated Semoso in a major misappropriation case involving K2.7 million.

In it, Achilles James Peni was found guilty of misappropriating K2.7 million of public moneys through a rigged contract. The Court claims the criminal enterprise was steered by Semoso, who used threats to ensure the contract was pushed through. A front company owned by Semoso’s wife was used to share in the proceeds.

Despite this astonishing criminal case, President Momis thought Semoso a proper and fit person for a critical Minister portfolio in his government.

If the ABG is corrupt to the core, after eight years as President the responsibility lies with John Momis. And if he is to have clean hands now, given the serious questions raised by the 2016 leak, it is incumbent on the President to fully disclose all public payments he and his wife have received since taking the top office and prove to the public the transactions are all above board.