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Qarase case: Day four
By JYOTI PRATIBHA
The second prosecution witness against former Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase was cross examined by the defence yesterday at the Suva High Court.
Sitiveni Weleilakeba, the former chief executive officer of Fijian Holdings Limited (FHL) and former board secretary, earlier took the stand and was questioned by FICAC senior counsel Michael Blanchflower.
Defence lawyer Tupou Draunidalo began her cross-examination yesterday afternoon. Mr Weleilakeba informed the court that Qarase was one of two signatories who could sign cheques written to pay shareholders their dividends.
Apart from being a signatory, the court also heard that Qarase was also receiving dividends on behalf of Q-Ten Investments Limited, a company said to have been owned by his wife Leba Qarase, Mavana Investments Limited and Cicia Plantation Co-op Society Limited.
The third day of trial began with SC Blanchflower tendering in more minutes of the board meetings based on which he questioned Mr Weleilakeba as he was the company secretary at that time and was largely responsible for writing the minutes.
Qarase denies six counts of abuse of office and three counts of discharge of duty with respect to property in which he has a private interest.
Dividends paid out:
The court heard that from December 1987 onwards, dividends from five per cent to 20 per cent were paid out annually to the shareholders.
The minutes of the eighth annual general meeting of FHL dated November 3, 1993 stated that there was a resolution that the tikinas and provincial councils would not have any ceiling on the number of shares they purchased from FHL.
Mr Weleilakeba told the court that this was done to encourage more participation from the tikinas and provincial councils to invest in FHL.
He said the company was established as a vehicle for provincial councils to invest.
Also in the minutes, it was stated that a 10 per cent final dividend be paid out to holders of Class A shares amounting to about $746,465 and five per cent dividend to holders of Class B shares.
Shareholders of Class B shares were the Fijian Affairs Board which came to own the shares after a loan of $20 million was sanctioned by them for FHL.
Value of shares:
The court heard that shares that cost $1 per share in the late 1980s were worth $3.40 by June 2008.
Mr Weleilakeba said in 1997 FHL was listed at the stock exchange which allowed existing shareholders to trade their shares
October 1, 1992 dividend payout decision:
Mr Blanchflower presented in court documents which gave a break-down of how the dividends were paid out.
Out of the $464,793.40 that was decided to be paid out, $279,580.40 was paid to the Fiji Development Bank. This was part of the arrangement that FHL had with the shareholders who had financed the buying of the shares via FDB.
Out of that amount, $40,000 was paid to Cicia Plantation Co-op Society Limited- of which $22,000 to FDB and $18,000 to the directors of Cicia Plantation Co-op Society Limited.
The court heard that dividend payout for Mavana Investments Limited was $20,000 and this amount was fully paid to FDB while the same amount of dividend was made to FDB for Q-Ten Investments Limited.
More dividend payouts were authorised by FHL with 10 per cent as interim dividends and 10 per cent as final dividends to the Class A shareholders.
April 1, 1993:
Similar payouts were made and FDB was sent similar cheques for Mavana Investments Limited, Q-Ten Investments Limited and Cicia Plantation Co-op Society Limited.
The next dividend pay-out was on December 31, 1993 of a similar amount.
The court heard that Qarase and Mr Weleilakeba were two of the three authorised signatories to write out cheques for payment of dividends.
On August 5, 1994 a letter was received by Mr Weleilakeba from ‘an officer’ at the FDB, informing him that they no longer had any interests in the dividends of Mavana Investments Limited and to cancel all direct payments of dividends to the bank.
The court also heard that all correspondence regarding the payment of dividends to Q-Ten Investments Limited, Mavana Investments Limited and Cicia Plantation Co-op Society Limited were sent from FHL to Qarase at his FDB address where he was the managing director at the time.
Charges against Weleilakeba:
FICAC had charged Weleilakeba of forgery and uttering forged documents earlier. The court heard that these charges were later withdrawn by FICAC.
Mr Blanchflower questioned Mr Weleilakeba whether the evidence given by him over the past two days in court were part of any immunity promised to him through FICAC, to which Mr Weleilakeba replied “no”.
Cross-examination by defence:
While cross-examining Mr Weleilakeba, Ms Draunidalo questioned him on whether he had attended any courses to enable him to take on the duties of a company secretary.
Mr Weleilakeba informed the court that during his tenure as the company secretary, he had not attended to any courses regarding his work as a company secretary, but he did attend two courses in business and advanced business programme at the Harvard Business School.
Earlier Mr Weleilakeba had informed the court that there had never been a dissent noted during any of the board meetings.
When Ms Draunidalo questioned him further on this, he clarified that he was recording the minutes of the meeting according to the “style” of former chair of the board late Lyle Cupit.
He said while there were lengthy discussions and debate held on issues, only the resolution of the matter was noted and not on who disputed during the debates.
The court heard that when Qarase had applied for FHL Class A shares on behalf of Q-Ten Investments Limited, Mavana Investments Limited and Cicia Plantation Co-op Society Limited, the application letters were sent to the Board for consideration.
Mr Weleilakeba said the Board at that time comprised of the former Governor of the Reserve Bank of Fiji Ratu Jone Kubuabola, the then Minister of Finance and Prime Minister, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.
Ms Draunidalo questioned that when the Board was clearly made up of the top echelons of the society, were they not aware that Qarase was benefiting directly or indirectly from the purchase of FHL Class A shares.
Mr Weleilakeba said it was normal practice for all applications to be sent to the Board before deciding whether to allow the sale of FHL shares.
He said Qarase, being the managing director of FDB, had been facilitating applications of various people, not only the three companies, in which he is alleged to have had vested interest.
Ms Draunidalo said her client did not attempt to hide his connections to Q-Ten Investments Limited, Mavana Investments Limited and Cicia Plantation Co-op Society Limited because all application letters would need to be vetted by the Board before approval.
Mr Weleilakeba’s cross examination continues today.