Update: Court strips Uiagalelei Iona of family title in case involving ASPA money and a felony conviction
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The Lands and Titles Division of the High Court of American Samoa has ruled to remove the Uiagalelei matai title from the incumbent registered holder, Uiagalelei Iona.
The decision was handed down Aug. 19, 2019 and signed by Chief Justice Michael Kruse, Chief Associate Judge Mamea Sala Jr., and Associate Judges Su’apaia Pereira, Satele Lili’o Ali’itai, and Tunupopo Alalafaga Tunupopo.
According to the ‘opinion and order’, the court found that cause has been “sufficiently demonstrated, and grant the petition to remove the Uiagalelei matai title” from Uiagalelei Iona.
The selection of a new titleholder — matai — is remanded back to the Uiagalelei family with an admonishment to heed A.S.C.A. 1.0402 and the accompanying legislative policy “under the precepts of the Bible, the common law, and the natural law of human beings, no one can serve [two] masters at the same time, and select one matai holder only.”
In 1984, the Uiagalelei family bestowed the Uiagalelei matai title on Uiagalelei Iona and Lealofi Uiagalelei as joint titleholders through a traditional saofa’i; however, according to court documents, only Iona registered the title and a Certificate of Registration was issued March 8, 1984.
(Samoa News understands that the Registrar’s Office at the time Lealofi went to register his title refused, sighting the law A.S.C.A. 1.0402 — that registering more than one matai, at one time is prohibited.)
Initially, Lealofi and Iona worked together to maintain peace and harmony within the family. But the relationship went sour following a settlement agreement between the Uiagalelei family and the ASG which “infused the Uiagalelei family with $400,000 cash in 2000,” according to court papers.
As the registered sa’o, Iona managed the settlement funds and after paying attorneys and surveyors, he distributed various amounts — ranging from $2000 to $10,000 — to the 10 chiefs of the Uiagalelei clan “and promised the remaining funds would be used to build a new guesthouse.”
Four years passed without a new guesthouse. And Lealofi, concerned about the settlement money and Iona entering into a new lease agreement with ASPA, filed suit for an injunction order against Iona, and demanding an accounting in May 2004.
The parties later filed a stipulated agreement to dismiss the matter and the case was dismissed with prejudice in Jan. 2005.
The court noted in its decision that in 2007, Iona pled guilty to federal witness tampering, essentially admitting that he instructed two Chinese women to provide false and misleading information to federal authorities about a sex trafficking scheme in American Samoa.
He was sentenced to 13 months in jail and 3 years of supervised leave on Jan. 7, 2008. Iona was imprisoned until Dec. 19, 2008 and his supervised release was terminated on Feb. 18, 2010.
On Dec. 31, 2012, Lealofi filed suit against Iona on the same grounds: enjoining Iona from entering into a lease agreement with ASPA and demanding an accounting of the $400K settlement. Again, the parties reached an agreement and the case was dismissed without prejudice on Apr. 19, 2017.
But prior to the resolution, Iona filed suit on Feb. 25, 2014 against Lealofi, enjoining Lealofi from holding himself out as the Uiagalelei title holder. The matter went to trial in Oct. 2017 and the court ruled in favor of Iona.
Before that ‘opinion and order’ was issued, Lealofi, along with the late Liua Pisamoa Taifane and Lolesio Petelo circulated a petition in 2014 to have the Uiagalelei title removed. The petition contained 64 signatures but the case was dismissed without prejudice because the petitioners “failed to comply with the statutory requirements of process and service of process,” according to the court.
During court proceedings, Iona and the three petitioners were also engaged in reconciliation meetings at the Office of Samoan Affairs. The parties met three times between 2016 and 2017 with no resolution reached; so a Certificate of Irreconcilable Dispute (CID) was issued on June 5, 2017.
The matter went to trial May 28- 30, 2019.
According to the court, a matai title can be removed if: (1) a petition for removal is signed by 25 blood members of the matai’s family, over 18 years old who, at the time of the petition, are serving the matai and family according to Samoan customs; and (2) for cause.
The court notes that “in the absence of anything to the contrary, the signature is conclusive.”
Sixty-four people signed the petition to remove the Uiagalelei title. But during trial, Makerita Manuma renounced her signature from the petition. Iona also presented 5 letters consisting of the names of 14 people — one of whom was Makerita — renouncing their signatures on the removal petition. That left 50 signatures, which is twice the amount required by statute.
Iona argued that the petitioners needed to be present at trial to testify; but the court ruled that the suggestion “would render the statutory requirement of a petition meaningless.”
For cause, the petitioners contended that the Uiagalelei title should be removed because: (1) Iona mismanaged the settlement funds “leading to disharmony, division, and hostility within the family”; (2) Iona is a convicted felon “bringing shame on the family”; and (3) Iona was ousted from the Futiga village council and Tualatai County, “bringing dishonor to the family.”
The court notes that removing a matai title for cause is determined on a case-by-case basis. In this case, petitioners asserted that Iona mismanaged the $400K settlement by not building a new guesthouse and by arbitrarily making distributions to “favorite family members,” causing disharmony in the family.
The court took judicial notice of the number of court cases surrounding Uiagalelei land known as ‘Saumolia’ and a settlement agreement between Iona, as the sa’o of the Uiagalelei family, and ASPA in 2000. The settlement agreement authorized ASPA to use Saumolia in exchange for $400K
At trial, Lealofi testified that the settlement money was to build a new guesthouse and when that didn’t happen, he filed suit. According to him, “the family has not received any money from the settlement, and Iona has not provided an accounting.”
But Ta’ia Sinapati Uiagalelei testified that the money was used to pay attorney fees, surveyors, and improvements to the land, with the remainder being distributed to members of the family, including Lealofi.
He said the money was divided in varying amounts to 10 matais of the Uiagalelei clan between 2000 and 2004, and he himself was given $2,000 while others received $10,000 and he was “unhappy” with that fact.
Another family member, Lealofi Malaga Fuatagavi testified that his parents received money from the settlement but he didn’t disclose the amount.
According to the court, the varying distributed amounts were “without reason”; but “what is more disturbing, is that even if all 10 matais of the Uiagalelei family received $10,000, the total amount distributed would only equal $100,000 not $400,000 which begs the question of what happened to the remaining funds.”
Ta’ia said Iona kept records but he failed to present an accounting to explain the discrepancy or demonstrate how the settlement money was used to benefit the family.
“Family members have been demanding an accounting since 2004, revealing serious distrust, litigation, and disharmony without resolution between family members for 15 years. Thus, we find that Iona failed in his capacity as a leader to influence the family to live peacefully and happily together through his mismanagement of the settlement funds,” according to the court’s decision.
Regarding Iona’s felony conviction, the court noted that in pleading guilty to witness tampering, Iona admitted that he was business partners with Fu Sheng Kuo, and “sponsored numerous Chinese nationals to enter and reside in American Samoa who then engaged in Kuo’s prostitution business.”
According to the court, “It is without question that Iona brought shame on the Uiagalelei family” and the territory, through his “involvement with a sex trafficking ring and subsequent conviction. Iona brought disgrace on the Uiagalelei title and no longer commands respect in the village as evidenced by his ouster from the village council.”
Furthermore, “Iona made a mockery of American Samoa law by using his power and authority as an agent of the American Samoa Government, the sa’o of the Uiagalelei family, and a minister within the church to abuse our immigration system. To make matters worse, Iona’s actions drew the attention of the federal government and shined a negative light on American Samoa, bringing shame on its inhabitants. We thus find that Iona’s actions are far from that of a good leader and that he no longer commands respect of the village.”
According to High Chief Ulufale Ta’ala Fili Fuimaono’s testimony at the hearing, Iona is not an active member of the Futiga Village Council. He said Iona was ousted because the village was dishonored by his conviction and prison sentence, and he is also ousted from the district.
Lealofi corroborated Ulufale’s testimony and said the Uiagalelei family is not in good standing with the village council and his family is not able to participate in village gatherings.
In his defense, Iona testified that in a 2014 village meeting by the Fale Lima in Aoloau, he was recognized as the talking chief of the Fale Lima District, and he had not been ousted by Futiga village. Ulufale rebutted Iona’s claims and said although Iona was present at the 2014 Fale Lima District meeting, he was “forbidden to speak” because he was ousted.
in its ruling, the court noted that there was a letter from the Futiga Village Council to Iona, in which the village chiefs ‘unanimously’ decided to oust him based on the following reasons: (1) Iona changed the established principles and salutation of the village; (2) Iona brought tribute, absent the Ulufale and Namu family; (3) Iona went to the district governor for forgiveness before coming to the village chiefs; and (4) “what is worse is that the village was ridiculed by way of the reason as to why you were imprisoned in Honolulu. It brought dishonor and embarrassment to the village.”
The court noted, “The evidence is quite clear that Iona has been ousted and, consequently, that the Uiagalelei family is not in good standing. Furthermore, Iona’s attempts at discrediting High Chief Ulufale at the trial reveal his continued arrogance that placed him in this situation in the first place.”