Worrying signs as Mirisim tribunal hit by failings

As Leadership Tribunals go they don’t come much bigger than this. A current Defence Minister and two-term MP, facing twenty-two charges of misconduct in office, including tax evasion, undeclared income, hidden beneficial ownerships in businesses awarded District contracts, falsification of official documents and interference in due process.

It is so big in fact the prosecution is being handled by the Public Prosector himself, not one of his staff, and one of the first witnesses called to give evidence was the Chief Ombudsman. Men at the very pinnacle of their careers and at the top of their professions.

All of which accentuates the concern and angst that the prosecution of Defence Minister, Solan Mirisim has been hit by a series of calamities.

Over the past two weeks, the Ombudsman Commission and Public Prosecutor have seen key elements of their case against the government Minister and Telefomin MP being struck out as a result of procedural errors that, raise very serious questions about the competence of those involved.

First, the prosecution failed to include two key letters, allegedly written by the Minister, interfering in the appointment of a new Defence Secretary, in the evidence disclosed to defence lawyers at the start of the hearing. In the letters, sent to secretary for the Department of Personnel Management in November 2017, and to the Public Service Minister in January 2018, the Minister allegedly called for a submission to the National Executive Council to be withdrawn.

The letters were key to establishing the prosecution case that Mirisim attempted to interfere in the process, but, as a result of the prosecutions failure to disclose the letters, the Tribunal has refused to accept them into evidence. How could such a rookie error be made by a senior prosecutor? It defies explanation.

The Tribunal also refused a request from the Public Prosecutor to issue its own direction to Chief Ombudsman to produce the letters. In turning down the request, the Tribunal Chair, Justice Gavara, rather scathingly, remarked it was not the Tribunal’s role to collect evidence and the task of proving the allegations rested with the prosecution.

This setback for the prosecution was followed days later by another. On July 28, the Tribunal struck out two statements of reasons contained in an affidavit filed by the Internal Revenue Commission on the grounds they were presented without supporting documents.

The two statements related to allegations the Minister failed to lodge Salary and Wages Tax, Corporate Income Tax and Goods and Services Tax in relation to his businesses.

As a result of this evidence being lost, the tribunal then dismissed three of the charges against Mirisim relating to the lodging of different tax returns. More rookie errors, that would embarrass an aspiring law student.

On a more positive note for the prosecution, the tribunal has refused an application from Mirisim’s lawyer, Greg Sheppard, for all the remaining 18 charges against his client to be dismissed for lack of evidence.

The hearing is set to resume on 16 August for Mirisim to present his defence. He has already pleaded guilty on one charge of providing an incorrect date of birth for his spouse and children on his annual statements.

The Minister was originally referred to the Office of the Public Prosecutor by the Ombudsman Commission on 22 charges of misconduct in office in November 2020. The Public Prosecutor, being satisfied there was a prima facie case, then referred the charges to the Chief Justice to put before a Leadership Tribunal.

The original allegations included failure to submit annual statements (for 2012/13, 2013-14 and 2014-15), failure to declare personal income and payments into his bank account and payments to his spouse, use of his official position for personal benefits, failure to declare an interest in Rain Fox Trading and the Motop Business Group, both of which were engaged by Telefomin District to implement projects funded by the district, failure to lodge taxes for Motop Business Group, and interference in the selection and appointment of the Secretary of Defence.

The tribunal is not considering a more recent allegation, made by the Forest Authority, that Mirisim, in his former role as Minister for Forests, issued an illegal logging permit.

The Minister is currently suspended from office under the provisions of the Organic Law on the Duties and Responsibilities of a Leader, while the allegations against him are being considered by the Leadership Tribunal.