Corruption in Paradise: the Kiwi cops who tried to clean up corruption in Tonga

The pictures of former Tongan police commissioners Chris Kelley, left, and Grant O'Fee hang on the wall at the Police ...
DAVID WHITE/FAIRFAX NZ

The pictures of former Tongan police commissioners Chris Kelley, left, and Grant O'Fee hang on the wall at the Police College.

Framed photos of police commanders decorate a wall at the Police College in Tonga.

The last two stand out because they are "palagi" - white Europeans - cops sent from New Zealand to clean up the force and root out corruption.

New Zealand taxpayers paid for the appointments through the Tonga Police Development Programme and the men got mixed results as they negotiated their way through a minefield of political allegiances.

 

The men in those photographs - Chris Kelley and Grant O'Fee - have been and gone and the same problems remain, says Tonga's Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pohiva.

Pohiva says he spoke to O'Fee before he left in 2014.

"He was worried, he said to me he couldn't really carry out his job. The implication that came to my mind was constraints within the ministry."

Another Kiwi, Steve Caldwell, has taken over the commissioner's role and Pohiva is concerned that he has yet to get results.

Former area commander of Blenheim police Steve Caldwell is now Police Commissioner in Tonga.
Former area commander of Blenheim police Steve Caldwell is now Police Commissioner in Tonga. Photo: FAIRFAX NZ

"He's doing his job, but his relationship with the deputy, I don't know.

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"He has to rely on the deputy and senior police officers, he can't do it himself.

"I am suspicious ... because they can always provide misleading stories or information ... that is my main worry."

Caldwell ignored repeated requests for an interview. His deputy, Viliami 'Unga Fa'aoa, said he was too busy to talk.

Ofa Vatikani, the editor of Tongan language newspaper Kele'a, is critical of Caldwell's attempts to shut down media inquiries on various issues - Police Minister Pohiva Tu'ionetoa says Caldwell is doing a good job, but needs to be more accountable to the public. 

Member of Parliament Mateni Tapueluelu goes further, accusing Caldwell and his Kiwi predecessors of being "reluctant" to address Tonga's main problems.

"The best thing for New Zealand to know is that the commissioners coming here are doing nothing about [the issues]. They're just here to get paid and they … like the social circles and after that they just go home."

O'Fee, now living in Nelson, rejected Tapueluelu's criticism.

Former Nelson district police commander Grant O'Fee became Tonga's second Kiwi police commissioner.
Former Nelson district police commander Grant O'Fee became Tonga's second Kiwi police commissioner. Photo: FAIRFAX NZ

"It's certainly not a retirement job. I gave it my heart and soul and I know that Chris Kelley would have done the same and I'm sure Steve Caldwell is doing his best as well.

"The job is reforming the police, and it's difficult. There are ... some more senior officers who are fairly rooted in the old ways.

"There's a lot of corruption. I've always thought it is a 15 to 20 year project, maybe more, to really get that attitudinal shift."

The Police College in Tonga. The past three commissioners have been Kiwis.
The Police College in Tonga. The past three commissioners have been Kiwis. Photo: DAVID WHITE/FAIRFAX NZ

Conflicted loyalties are part of the problem, he says.

"They constantly found themselves conflicted if there was an investigation into someone from their church, that was a very powerful force for them. 

"It's not as simple as you might think, going in there as a palagi and saying 'nah, you've just gotta lock 'em up.' They have a different view and it's quite hard for us to get our heads around how that works."

O'Fee says about 40 police officers were arrested during his time.

The biggest case was the death of New Zealand police officer Kali Fungavaka, who was in Tonga for his father's funeral and was fatally beaten while in police cells.

New Zealand police officer Kali Fungavaka, who was beaten to death in Tongan police cells.
Kali Fungavaka. Photo: SUPPLIED

Two officers were convicted of manslaughter and another of assault.

O'Fee also tried to get to the bottom of how dozens of criminals were able to have their records wiped so they could get into New Zealand to work. 

It turned out a previous Minister of Police had made an informal policy that people with convictions for minor matters could have their records cleared so they could earn money for their families overseas.

"But 'minor matters' was never clearly outlined to anybody," O'Fee says.

"There was one with a manslaughter conviction, it was a bloody shocker.

"I could see their point of view, this was the one chance for very poor Tongan families to make some money."

O'Fee says the police development programme is good and there are now some excellent senior officers with the potential to be commissioner.

"The problem is you get a group of middle to senior management ... that are very entrenched in the old ways. 

"Their influence on junior staff is very, very powerful. That is a lock that is very hard to find the key to."

Chris Kelley, the first palagi Police Commissioner, now working for Dunedin police.
Chris Kelley, the first palagi Police Commissioner, now working for Dunedin police. Photo: FAIRFAX NZ

Kelley, who was appointed in 2008 when Tonga was still recovering from riots two years earlier which left parts of the capital Nuku'alofa in ruins and several people dead, declined to comment.

Sources say he made friends and enemies as he set about bringing corrupt officials to justice.

Senior officers who'd lost rank led a rebellion against Kelley, accusing him of favouritism and expressing concern at how allegations of misconduct were investigated.

In 2011, the Government controversially decided not to renew his contract.

Kelley's fate may have been sealed when Dr Viliami Latu was appointed Police Minister.

Latu had been charged with assaulting his wife in 2010 and Kelley refused to drop the case. However, the victim chose not to give evidence and it could not proceed.

Image of the sunken Tongan ferry, Princess Ashika.
Image of the sunken Tongan ferry, Princess Ashika. Photo: SUPPLIED

The most significant event during Kelley's time in Tonga was the 2009 sinking of the Prince Ashika ferry, which left 74 people dead. He led the search for survivors and the subsequent investigation into the tragedy.

He's now working for Dunedin police. ​

 - Stuff.co.nz

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