Jury trial for former head of Retirement Fund again delayed
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Despite the strong objection from the defense attorney, Acting Associate Justice, Elvis Pila Patea has granted — due to some “unexpected situations” — the government’s motion to continue the jury trial for the former Executive Director of the Retirement Fund, Luatua Filisouaiga Ta’afua, which was scheduled for this month
According to the High Court calendar, Luatua’s jury trial was scheduled for July 23, 2018.
Last Thursday, a hearing on a motion to continue the jury trial was called before Patea. Associate Judge Tunupopo Alalafaga accompanied Patea during these proceedings. Luatua, who is out on surety bond is represented by Gwen Tauiliili-Langkilde, while Assistant Attorney General, Robert Morris appeared for the government.
When the case was called, Morris informed the court for the reason behind the government asking for a continuance. He told the court that the government “is having some unexpected situations” about the case.
“Did these unexpected situations occur after or before the motion was filed?” Patea asked the government’s attorney. Morris replied that these unexpected situations occurred before the motion was filed.
“At this point the government cannot go forward with the trial already scheduled on July 23, due to the sudden passing of one of it main witnesses, while our primary witness is undergoing surgery in Hawai’i this week,” Morris told the court.
He continued that one of the other government’s witnesses is still scheduled to arrive on island before July 23, because his travel arrangements have already been set out and his fare has already been paid.
“I know the defense attorney will object to our motion but the government feels that this is the right path to go,” Morris said. He also asked the court to continue the trial for another 6 months.
When given the chance to address the court, Tauiliili-Langkilde voiced her strong objection to the government’s motion, saying the continuance will be a violation of her client’s right to a speedy trial.
“This trial was originally set for Nov. 2017, and then continued because the defense did not have the discovery for the case from the government. By March of this year, we finally get the supplemental report to fight for the case,” Tauiliili-Langkilde said.
Upon receiving the supplemental report from the government, the trial was then set for March of this year, however, the government requested to continue until July 23 because one of their witness — who is an expert — was not available at the time.
According to the defense, the court then granted the government’s motion to set the trial for July 23.
“Although Morris Fanene passed away I think May of this year, the second witness is still on island, but now she left and we don’t know why she left and when she left. When she will be back is the question,” Tauiliili-Langkilde.
The defense attorney said that her client has charged in this case over two years ago now. He’s out on bond and his life is not moving on because of this case hanging over him.
For all of these reasons, the defense attorney asked the court not to grant the government’s motion for another continuance.
After hearing submissions from both sides, Patea then called both attorneys to the bench. After a brief discussion with both, the court then granted the government its motion for continuance.
“The court notes the objection of the defense in regards to the motion to continue the trial that was set for July 23, however, based on the points provided by the government, as far as the sudden death one of its witness, and then the unexpected emergency medical situation with one of their other witnesses, the court will go ahead and grant continuance at this time,” Patea said.
For the motion of continuance of the trial for another 6 months, Patea told the government that the court would consider that motion.
For the defense’s concern about her client’s right to a speedy trial, Patea said that issue would be taken up in front of the court later on. The court would also set a new date for the trial at a later date.
Luatua, who is out on bond, was hit with 20 charges in April 2016 for allegedly misappropriating more than $100,000 of Retirement Fund money, while he was serving as the ASGERF executive director.
Aside from the DPS investigation report, a forensic auditor from Utah carried out a separate probe of allegations surrounding spending by Luatua of Retirement Fund money.
The audit report found evidence that Luatua allegedly misappropriated about $112,000 that belonged to the Fund for his personal use. When the case surfaced in the beginning of 2015, Luatua was then placed on leave with pay for several months while the investigation was in progress and January of 2016, the Retirement Fund Board moved to terminate his service.
During a status hearing before the court in March of this year, Tauiliili-Langkilde told the court that on November of last year, she filed a motion to compel the government to produce discovery and documents relating to the charges against her client.
And up until the last week of March, she had not received all the requested information she was looking for from the government, nor the Department of Public Safety. She told the court that the defense really needs the information to prepare for the trial and without it, they can’t present their case during trial.
The government’s attorney Morris on the other hand told the court that he understands the defense’s argument and it’s something he has being working hard to achieve. He said that he spoke with police officers who are handling the case and informed them about the documents the defense attorney is asking for.
Morris then asked the court for another continuance, because the government’s key witness is off-island and would not be available during the trial date that had been set.
After hearing arguments from both side, Patea immediately granted the government’s motion for another continuance, not only to give them time to await their key witness who was off island, but also to give more time for the defense to prepare for trial on July 23.
Fanene Morris Scanlan, who was the chairman of the ASGERF board at the time Luatua was the executive director of the Retirement Fund, passed away in the latter part of May.
He resigned from the ASGERF board in 2015, citing health reasons.
Fanene’s resignation followed on the heels of the probe he initiated to look at claims that Luatua approved travel and per diem payments for himself and other members of the staff and issued checks to a janitorial company that he was affiliated with.
Then executive Director Luatua Filisouaiga Taafua was placed on leave for 30 days while the investigation was underway, and continued to be on paid leave throughout the investigation, including the forensic audit carried out in October of 2015 by an auditor from the Utah-based firm, Squirre. The ASGERF board moved to terminate his services in January of 2016.
Luatua was arrested in April 2016 and is facing about 20 charges for allegedly misappropriating more than $100,000 of Retirement Fund money while he was director of the government pension plan.