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Cook Islands PM, deputy PM deny fraud charges
7:08 pm GMT+12, 09/02/2020, Cook Islands

Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna and Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown have both pleaded not guilty to four separate charges each over a jet charter row.
 
The matter was brought before Justice of the Peace John Whitta Friday.
 
Puna and Brown have both been charged on two counts each for conspiracy by default and two counts each for improper payment of public funds.
 
The complaints were filed by a former Democratic Party member Teokotai George, who alleges a charter flight was not used for a medical emergency but for political purposes, in the days after the 2018 election.
 
Puna and Brown allegedly participated in a scheme to bring newly-elected MPs from Pukapuka and Penrhyn by chartering a jet aircraft for about $32,000 (US$20, 479), “by fraudulently using public funds”.
 
The fund was for the emergency evacuation of sick patients, the court papers alleged, “when no such emergency existed”.
 
The second charge relates to “procuring for themselves and the Cook Islands Party the improper payment of $32,000 of public money” for the same charter flight.
 
Lawyer Tim Arnold is acting for Brown; lawyer Ben Marshall is acting for Puna.
 
Marshall entered not guilty pleas for both Puna and Brown, and said they preferred a judge-alone trial.
 
Private prosecutor Norman George said the penalty for the charges was fines, and not imprisonment.
 
All matters were transferred to the High Court where the trial is expected to be held on 23 March, before Chief Justice Sir Hugh Williams QC.

SOURCE: COOK ISLANDS NEWS/PACNEWS


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