Part Eleven of a Special Report by VICTOR LAL
In her recent speech to the Fiji Institute of Accountants the former High Court judge Nazhat Shameem, who in the 1990s as head of the DPP had a monumental fight on her hands to bring to justice those involved in the National Bank of Fiji Loans Scam, recalled the Reserve Bank of Fiji report on the NBF which put losses through reckless lending without security at $220 million (in fact $372million) in 1995.
Shameem reminded the accountants of the words of the late Savenaca Siwatibau, a former Governor of the Reserve Bank, who said this of the ill-fated Bank: “The board of the NBF by all accounts was not up to the onerous tasks which fiduciaries are expected to discharge. While there were members of the board who had the required technical skills, the board as a whole appeared not to fully understand what was going on and was certainly not strong enough to guide, direct, and control the activities of management. Or if they actually were aware of the dangerous trajectory of the bank to its ultimate destruction, collectively they were not strong enough to act decisively and firmly to avoid that certain fate.”
She went on to cite three authors who attempted to explain the collapse of the NBF. Doug Munro, Michael White and Roman Grynberg, in the preface to their book “Crisis: Collapse of the National Bank of Fiji” published in 2002, were even more severe. Pointing out that the NBF Crisis which came in the midst of the Asian financial crisis resulted in one of Fiji’s worst recessions post-independence, they said: “It must be added that the NBF crisis was not the only financial scandal in Fiji’s recent history, only the most serious.
Also under siege in 1995 were the Fiji Housing Authority, the Fiji Development Bank, the Fiji Broadcasting Commission, the Fiji Public Service Credit Union, the Public Trustee’s Office, and the Methodist Church; while in 1997 the police were investigating corruption in the Customs Department, the Housing Authority, the Companies Office and the Registrar-General’s Department. To all appearances, a culture of mismanagement and corruption was not confined to the NBF but widespread.”
Shameem once again reminded her audience that very few charges were laid in any of these cases. With the exception of the Housing Authority, charges which were laid were dismissed for want of evidence. The only convictions in the NBF investigations were set aside on appeal on the ground of unconstitutional delay. The delay in investigation and prosecution had been caused by inadequate laws, insufficient police resources, antiquated court procedures (Fiji still had the old-fashioned oral preliminary inquiry) and an untrained judiciary.
Despite the obvious failures of the justice system in the NBF crisis, the laws were not reformed, she told the accountants, continuing: “Post-2000, we experienced the Agriculture scam. Whether it was a case of political corruption, or financial opportunism and greed, or simply shocking public financial mismanagement, the jury is still deliberating. However the tax payers lost $18 million in a period of 2 years.
The money was never recovered. And still there was no law reform. What can be said about such political obstinacy in the face of blatant corruption? Grynberg, Munro and White called the fiasco a case of complete institutional failure. But such failure still fails to explain the lack of subsequent legal or institutional reform. Even if the law creating corruption offences was too hard to reform (and I don’t believe that this was the case), at least institutional steps could have been taken to strengthen the institutions charged with the legal and fiduciary duty, to deal with the crisis. No such steps were taken. The situation was ripe for another financial scam - a scam such as the Agriculture scam.”
While agreeing with Shameem regarding the NBF, I don’t believe that the laws then available to her were the only factors that failed her; it could be the powerful individuals, provincial councils, and institutions that were either directly or indirectly involved in obtaining those loans that stood in her way from bringing anyone to justice in the NBF Loans Scam. In the later part of the series, a more clearer picture will begin to emerge, as we try to put ‘faces’ to the names of individuals and companies (for example as I have already done in the case of Vakatora Holdings Ltd) on that 1996 NBF Debtors List, something Grynberg, Munro and White did not attempt in their book.
As they explained themselves: “Our analysis has certain clear and in many cases self-imposed limitations that ought to be made explicit to the reader. This collection of papers is not a behind-the-scenes expose of the events. The authors have relied almost exclusively on the public record, that is, the press, parliamentary debates and public reports. We never sought access to privileged or confidential documents, and when the occasional such item became available to us we declined to use it. Neither have we systematically interviewed the dramatis personae.
Many of the key players we did not approach at all…To repeat, we used only what information is in the public domain or that individuals freely discussed with us – and we have drawn our own conclusions accordingly. As will become evident to the reader, the weight of publicly available evidence is such that simply to document the public record and to draw reasonable influences was sufficient for the purposes of a first reporting of events. However, what is available in this work is the closest the public of Fiji is ever likely to receive to an explanation and accounting of what was the largest known financial scandal in the history of Fiji and the Pacific Islands.’
The three authors continued: ‘Reliance on the public record and a concentration on ‘visible’ events have naturally imposed limitations on our research and the results. Lack of access to loan files, Cabinet papers, and the departmental correspondence of government means that there must be substantial gaps in our analysis. It has meant that we are unable to link specific loans with corruption, incompetence or disregard for prudent banking practices. Not that we set out to do this. Nor have we attempted to unravel what the editor of one of Fiji’s monthly magazines described as ‘a linked system of corruption, cronyism, nepotism and abuse of office, where everybody looks the other way’. In this area we have simply quoted the views of the government, the parliamentary Opposition and the media.”
The authors also paid tribute to the journalists: “We, and all those who are victims of this economic disaster, are eternally grateful to those courageous journalists who reported the NBF saga more fully than the government or the bank would have liked and who stood their ground when elements in government went on the counter-offensive. We also salute the many individuals who fought back when the government, bent on punitive retribution, was contemplating the muzzling of the press.”
According to the authors: ‘Although the public record has some noticeable gaps, we nevertheless feel that this seeming disability has been an advantage…In a sense we are glad that we cannot test the propriety of individual loans, although we do hope that our book will cause renewed discomfort to culpable individuals. It is also impossible to avoid identifying key individuals within the NBF, some of whom we have had occasion to criticize. That said we suspect that many individuals will be mightily relieved not to find their names in the index of this book…We realize that this book will meet with a mixed, and in some quarter hostile, reception in Fiji. It is, after all, on a controversial topic and there are those at high levels in government and state who have benefitted from the financial imprudence of the NBF and the incompetence of those overseeing bank regulation in Fiji.”
Some, the authors, noted, “Will feel that we have not gone far enough in ‘pointing the finger’ and identifying guilty individuals; others will be incensed that we wrote the book at all. The Fiji public has been asked to accept, after all, that it is ‘water under the bridge’.
Having lived so long in Fiji, we are perfectly aware of the prevalence of extreme sensitivity towards criticism, especially criticism offered by ‘outsiders’, however sympathetic they may be. The competence, motives, integrity and professionalism of the critic will all be called into question in some quarters for that is the stock response to criticism. In reply, we point out that when all is said and done, the NBF saga continues to be a major public issue on which proper disclosure and rational discussion are both necessary in the interest of avoiding any perpetuation or repetition of such doubtful conduct.’
Like my recent critics, Grynberg, Munro and White attempted to answer the same question: ‘There are also those who will ask why this matter should be discussed at all so long after the event. Indeed, much of what has already been said should explain the motivation for this work. The public of Fiji may never know whether the collapse of the NBF was the product of massive malfeasance by the bank and its clients and/or simply incompetence and cowardice from the regulatory authorities.
This is the range of explanations, and this book is motivated by concern that such a massive amount of the nation’s resources was taken from its people without any proper accounting, let alone justice for the victims. At the heart of this was the feeling shared by the authors at the time of the NBF crisis that this event was a watershed in Fiji’s history. Without wishing to pre-empt the conclusion of this book, we may state here that the NBF crisis served as a most public example of the worst economic abuses of the post  coup era.’
In 2002 Grynberg, Munro and White wrote in their book: “Six years after the collapse of the bank there has still been no public inquiry nor has anyone ever been punished for the NBF disaster. No Reserve Bank governor has resigned; no auditor-general has been dismissed and no politician or finance secretary’s career has been truncated directly as a result of the crisis…”
In 1995, the post Rabuka coup Minister of Finance Berenado Vunibobo, later Frank Bainimarama’s representative at the UN, had dismissed the collapse of the NBF as ‘water under the bridge’ but to his credit, he later did inform Parliament that “No loan defaulter will be forgiven or forgotten”.
For many years now I have been gathering materials on individuals, provincial councils and companies who borrowed from the collapsed NBF, and hope the expose will fill the gaps left by Grynberg, Munro and White in their book “Crisis: The Collapse of the National Bank of Fiji.” After all, they never identified the doubtful debtors from 1995/1996 as contained in the NBF’s Debtors List. To quote Vunibobo, ‘No loan defaulter will be forgiven or forgotten’. So far, I have identified some of the borrowers: Ratu Epeli Ganilau, Inoke Kubuabola, many of Kubuabola’s co-conspirators from the 1987 coups, including two former Attorney-Generals, Kelemedi Bulewa and Qoriniasi Bale; the Methodist Church, the Vakatoras, the Druavesis’ etc, etc.
In the opening series I recalled Shameem’s assertion that what was supposed to be an affirmative action program to advance soft loans to the disadvantaged indigenous population was in fact a slush fund for the privileged, many of whom were not even indigenous? In order to identify those companies on the NBF Debtors List, I had to search its directors in the records held by the Registrar of Companies in Fiji.
It was the only way to identify the i-taukei from the non i-taukei, the powerful from the ordinary borrower. The ROC also yielded the names of individuals who either personally or through front companies and provincial councils borrowed loans ranging from thousands to millions until the NBF collapsed spectacularly in 1995, with the taxpayers having to foot a bill of $327 million.
BW Holdings Ltd
In the 1996 NBF List of Doubtful Debtors the above company was listed as having borrowed $1,146,012 from the collapsed NBF. In targeting the big borrowers, it was imperative that I went behind the scenes, to find out who were its directors, and the nature of their operations. BW Holdings, as we know, was one of the road builders (the other was Standard Concrete Industries) which was granted contract in July 2006 to complete road building project that was abandoned unfinished by a Chinese company Covec from mainland China. Covec had been given the contract worth $US41million to build major roads in my maternal homeland of Tailevu in 2001. But the company made little progress, blaming Fiji’s weather conditions and the local workforce for the delays.
A search in the ROC reveal that BW Holdings has a mortgage with the Westpac Banking Corporation of Suva of a fixed and floating charge dated 30th of August 2008 of $2,1129,000 (Two Million One Hundred Twenty-Nine Thousand Dollars – Company Number 5267). In its annual return up to 31 March 2000, it gave the company’s registered office as follows: Vishnu Deo Road, Nakasi and P. O. Box 2449, Government Buildings, Suva. The number of shares of each class taken up at the date of this return was 100000; Class: $1 ordinary shares fully paid. And the total amount of indebtedness of the company in respect of all mortgages and charges with the Registrar of Companies under the Companies Act was $1,577,449.
The Company directors were listed as follows: Bimla Wati Narayan (26 Sri Raman Place, Tamavua, Suva; number of shares held by her was 50,000; and Uday Narayan (P O Box 2449, Government Buildings, Suva); number of shares held by him was 50,000. The Secretary to the company was signed off as Gardiner Henri Whiteside of G H Whiteside and Co. In the 1995 annual return of the company and its share capital the company’s registered address was as follows: Office of Vishnu Prasad & Co, 4th Floor, Pacific House, Butt Street, P. O. Box 1396, Suva.
In a Civil Appeal in the Fiji High Court between B.W. HOLDINGS LIMITED and PROPERTIES PACIFIC (FIJI) LIMITED, Justice John E Byrne, has shed more light on the company in its ruling of 3 February 2009. “Will the Appeal be Rendered Nugatory? In my Judgment the Appellant (BW Holdings) has not shown any good reason in its Affidavit in Support of the Motion to show how the appeal will be rendered nugatory if a Stay of execution is not granted. One of the directors of the Appellant, Ugesh Narayan, states in an Affidavit sworn on the 22nd of October 2008 that the Appellant is a substantial Company with assets in excess of $11,000,000.00 and numerous contracts in train valued at about $17,000,000.00.
He then appears to contradict himself by saying that if the Respondent tries to enforce payment of the Judgment sum this may lead to the Appellant losing all its assets, contracts, employees and be forced to shut down. Therefore the refusal of a Stay will prejudice his company entirely. In paragraph 11 of the Affidavit he says that the effect of a refusal of a Stay will have the possible result of acting as a catalyst to prematurely trigger facilities which would not be able to be realized but for the Judgment. I simply cannot understand this last sentence.
I fail to see how a company which claims to be worth millions of dollars will be so adversely affected by having to pay an amount of less than three quarters of a million dollars if its claims to the value of its assets are correct. In fact the Appellant concedes this because in paragraph 9 of his Affidavit of the 27th of October Mr Narayan says that his company is in a position to satisfy the Judgment sum in the event of the appeal failing. These are not Mr Narayan’s exact words but I consider this to be the only meaning of them in paragraph 9.”
The BW Holdings and Pacific Properties (Fiji) Ltd had gone to court over alleged breach of agreement over the sale of property, as outlined by Justice Bryne: “In exchange for Lots 1, 2 and 3 being leasehold property situated at Viria Road, Vatuwaqa covered in LD Ref. No. 7/6/59 which the Defendant had agreed to sell to the Plaintiff through a Sale and Purchase Agreement executed between them on 26 August 2003, the Defendant in lieu thereof agrees to provide the Plaintiff with Lots 1 and 2 which are shaded on the Map attached to these Terms of Settlement whose total area will amount to 1.5 acres after survey, which the Plaintiff now accepts on payment of the purchase price of $264,000.00.”
After lengthy legal submissions Bryne had dismissed the application for a Stay of an Ex-tempore Decision of Justice Jitoko in the High Court of Suva, delivered on 25 September 2008 when Jitoko had assessed damages pursuant to a breach of Agreement between the Appellant and the Respondent. The Agreement was sealed by Order of the Court on 31st August 2007.
On the social front, it seems BW Holdings have been generous with their millions; sponsoring the Fiji Golf Club Fletcher Cup, and in February 2010 BW Holdings generously donated $20,125.25 to the Foundation for the Education of Needy Children (FENC), with a commitment of $20,000 per annum over the next four years. The Government of Fiji provided the initial seed funding of $200,000 to FENC, whose website states as follows: “The Foundation for the Education of Needy Children in Fiji (Fenc Fiji) is a voluntary, non-political, not-for–profit, cause-oriented organization, registered under the Charitable Trusts Act (Cap 67) of Fiji.”
Its objective is to help the children of the poorest of the poor families in Fiji; and has stated that “Fenc Fiji will seek excellence in regard to quality and standards of its service delivery; practice sound governance, and transparency and full disclosure to all its stakeholders”. One of the key stakeholders of Fenc Fiji, among others, includes the Government of Fiji, particularly the Office of the Prime Minister. Bainimarama launched FENC in March 2010.
FENC’s Board of Trustees are listed as follows: Teresa Apted - Director, Apted Ltd; Ratu Jolame Lewanavanua - Chairman, Lomaiviti Provincial Council; Nazhat Shameem - Barrister and Solicitor (she donated $2,000 to FENC); and Vindula Naidu - Retired Secondary School Principal. FENC’s headquarters is listed as Senate House, Parliamentary Complex, Veiuto, Suva. In Australia, FENC’s contact person is the former diplomat Robin Nair who had a brief tryst in the post Bainimarama regime, and the contact person in New Zealand is John Samy, the architect of the Peoples Charter For Change, Peace and Progress (NCBBF).
The chairperson for Fenc Fiji is Loraine Tevi, another member of NCBBF. Samy donated $2,000 initially to FENC, with a promise of another $2,000 annually for the next nine years. There were other generous donors, with Ratu Epeli Ganilau’s daughter Adi Koila Ganilau McBride making a donation of $8,7000 to FENC. Like BW Holdings Ltd, Epeli Ganilau was listed as having borrowed $631,594 from the NBF.
Fenc Fiji is registered as a Charitable Trust on 4 October 2009, which means it falls within the ambit of Section 17(5) of the Fiji Income Tax Act and is exempt from tax.
What has Fenc Fiji, a charitable trust, got to do with the collapse of the NBF? The answer simply is, NOTHING. I decided to include it because in the course of my investigation into BW Holdings, it emerged that it made an initial donation of $20,000, with a commitment of another $20,000 for the next four years, to FENC. I also found it ironical that by sheer coincidence Shameem happens to be one of the trustees of Fenc Fiji, to which BW Holdings made the donation and has committed itself to further financial support. We may recall her uphill fight to bring to justice the NBF defaulters.
I am not sure if BW Holdings ever cleared its loan to the NBF, for the company has not replied to my e-mail regarding its debt of over $1million to the collapsed bank. If BW Holdings has not settled its loan, than it becomes imperative for a Commission of Inquiry into its loan dealings and a retrospective decree to re-coup from it the $1million loan, to be set aside for the poorest of the poor, who were deprived of $327million of taxpayers’ money with the collapse of the NBF.
I also notice that the Fiji National Provident Fund on 11 May 2010 had publicly identified BW Holdings on its official website among one of the many companies who had not paid its FNFP contribution: “B W Holdings Ltd: January 2010 to March 2010.”
But what about BW Holdings Ltd’s $1, 146,012 loan from the collapsed NBF? To repeat Nazhat Shameem, who has noted that what was supposed to be an affirmative action program to advance soft loans by the NBF to the disadvantaged indigenous population was in fact a slush fund for the privileged, many of whom were not indigenous and some of whom were cronies of people in authority.
In the words of a great Muslim sage: “Say what is true, although it may be bitter and displeasing to people.”
Editor’s Note: We will continue to reveal debtors names, which includes those of high chiefs, politicians, Indo-Fijians, business houses, including individual supporters of the present illegal junta in Fiji. If you or your family has paid back the NBF loans, please provide Victor Lal with evidence. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org