Coconut Hearsay Might Have Kept Samoan Education Official Out Of Federal Prison

June 9, 2012

English: Announcement of the first Marx Brothe...In approximately late 2007 and early 2008, federal authorities began investigating allegations of bribes and kickbacks paid by vendors to officials of the American Samoa Government in connection with the government's purchase of school bus parts and services.  Perhaps you were unaware of this high-stakes criminal investigation that was picking up steam as the stock market prepared to embark upon a death spiral and the shadows of the Great Recession started to creep across the land.  It's nice to know that while the toxic exotic securities and the mortgage fraud began to back up in the sewers of Wall Street that someone still had time to keep an eye out on the cesspool of corruption that was the Samoan school bus business.

Bribery?  Kickbacks?? Bus Parts??? Samoa????

Geez, when I think of Samoa, I sort of think of idyllic islands afloat in Polynesia amidst the Pacific Ocean with Clark Gable or Marlon Brando cavorting nearby at some luau with coconuts and beautiful women (no, I can't quite put Mel Gibson into that picture anymore).

Of course, there are also some very large and powerful Samoans with some fearsome looking tattoos and long hair who play in the National Football League and I'm not sure if they necessarily appreciate my Mutiny on the Bountyfantasy. I'm less worried about getting punched out by Gable or Brando these days than, say, getting tackled and stomped on by an NFL linebacker, so, hey, no offense to anyone of Samoan descent. My guess is that there is little, if any, connection between my Technicolor vision of Samoa and its present-day reality.  One thing for sure, big government in all its corrupting glory seems to have find this beautiful corner of the world. For every coconut that has fallen to the ground, I'm sure that there are as many laptops.  Apparently my sense of the world is, once again, overly influenced by Hollywood. My sincere apologies.

On September 15, 2010, Paul Solofa, 49, the former director of the school lunch program and the chief financial officer for the Department of Education for the government of the U.S. Territory of American Samoa was arrested pursuant to an Indictment charging him with one count each of witness tampering and obstruction of justice.  If convicted, Solofa faced a maximum of 10 years in prison for obstruction of justice and 20 years in prison for witness tampering, plus a $250,000 fine for each count.

According to the Indictment, Solofa met on April 3, 2009, with a school bus parts vendor who told Solofa that the FBI was interested in interviewing the vendor regarding the bus parts investigation.   Solofa was recorded as telling the vendor :

They cannot do anything with cash.   Nothing.   They cannot do anything with cash.   They cannot track down you on cash.   Because even if you say you gave me cash I'll tell them ‘no.' They cannot take your word on cash.   Because that's hearsay.   So you know, but the best thing for you to do is ‘nope, I never give them any cash, I never' - because that will open up the whole operation . . . You get what I am saying.   All you do is just tell them ‘no, yes, no, yes,' period.

On April 14, 2009, the same vendor told  Solofa that a grand jury subpoena would soon be issued compelling the production of specific documents and records, some of which related to Solofa.   Apparently, not realizing that the flat school bus tire or coconut on the table was wired - or whatever the FBI wired-up to record the conversation - Solofa assured the vendor :

 [t]he only way to do it with those copies is burn it.   That way, they won't see it, and you won't worry that they might see it, you know . . . Just burn it, and nobody has a copy."

After a four-day trial in January 2012, a federal jury in the District of Columbia found Solofa guilty of one count of witness tampering and one count of obstruction of justice. The head of the School Bus Division for the American Samoa Department of Education, Gustav Nauer, 47, was also convicted for his role in the bribery scheme.

On June 4, 2012, Nauer was sentenced to 25 months in prison. On June 8, 2012,  Solofa, was sentenced to 35 months in prison.

Frankly, this is an impressive case.  Superb detective work by the FBI. So - how about we invite a whole batch of Wall Street folks to some kind of Polynesian luau?  Then we stick microphones all over the place and get them to talk about the Facebook offering, NASDAQ's computers, MF Global's customer money, JP Morgan's risk management, Goldman Sachs's exotic securities, Bank of America's purchase of Merrill Lynch - you know, whatever floats your fancy, we'll put on the list of conversation topics.  I'm not sure where we could best hide those microphones - guess it will sort of depend upon whom we're going after.  Maybe we could put them in some Louis Roederer Cristal bottles?  Maybe in some Rolex watches?  Hmmm…maybe we could forget about the whole South Seas theme and plant the bugs in the fancy sky boxes at the Super Bowl in those shellfish towers or signed footballs?  Frankly, school buses or insider trading, luaus in Polynesia or steak dinners in Las Vegas - it's merely nuance.  Crooks are crooks, the world over.

The only thing, though - and I offer this tidbit after some three decades of lawyering - make sure that when these investigative targets are being recorded that they actually say the word "cash" or "money."  I mean, you know, Solofa should had been just a little more guarded and careful with what he said.  It's never a good idea to talk about hiding "cash" or burning evidence, particularly when you've been tipped that the feds are hot on the trail.

If you're going to talk about illegal payoffs, it's better to use some term like cabbage or, say, coconuts - whatever the local produce may be.  And, no, don't go for the Hollywood jargon of "dead Presidents,"  it's just too obvious. If Solofa had been just a bit more clever, the feds could have wound up with a taped statement along the lines of:

They cannot do anything with coconuts.   Nothing.   They cannot do anything with coconuts.   They cannot track down you on coconuts.   Because even if you say you gave me coconuts I'll tell them ‘no.' They cannot take your word on coconuts.   Because that's hearsay.   So you know, but the best thing for you to do is ‘nope, I never give them any coconuts, I never' - because that will open up the whole operation . . . You get what I am saying.   All you do is just tell them ‘no, yes, no, yes,' period.