In a letter dated July 28 2017, Vanuatu National Provident Fund chairman Alain Lew informed Doreen Lango, Manager of Member Services at the fund, that she had been dismissed.
No reasons were provided in the letter, but Ms Lango insists that her dismissal is related to a sexual harassment complaint she raised against her superior, former General Manager Viliame Baleitavua.
A related criminal complaint and investigation resulted in a decision by the State Prosecutions office to drop the charges and to close their file.
Ms Lango alleges that Mr Baleitavua approached her outside a bar on October 30, 2016 where she was standing with a number of friends, and that he roughly grabbed her arm and made aggressive sexual overtures.
Multiple witness statements confirm that the woman attempted to restore calm by introducing her boss to her friends and colleagues.
One witness statement alleged that she “kindly reminded Viliame that his act is not right and that he is her boss when Viliame replied… ‘I do not care, tonight you will be with me.’”
The witnesses agree that Mr Baleitavua then pulled her forcefully into the bar, against her will.
Another witness statement alleges that, once inside, Mr Baleitavua did not release his grip on the woman, and that he “grabbed Doreen by the hand and told her that ‘I will f- — you tonight.’”
Ms Lango managed to elude the man, she said, by feigning a need to use the toilet. When she emerged from the bar, a witness described her as ‘terrified’ and ‘panic-stricken’.
She told the Daily Post that she was frightened that she would face physical harm if she were left alone with him that night.
Mr Baleitavua is presently in Fiji. The Daily Post has tried to reach him via both his personal and work email, and was still awaiting a response when this story went to press.
Ms Lango told the Daily Post that she filed two complaints concerning the event. The first, she said, was to Human Resources department within the VNPF. The second was a criminal complaint alleging “drunken and disorderly behaviour, sexual harassment, intentional assault and abusive language”, according to the incident report.
A subsequent letter from the State Prosecutor to the VNPF board referred the sexual harassment complaint back to the VNPF to be handled according to their own policies and practices.
In an interview with the VNPF board chairman and the acting General Manager, the Daily Post asked if any in-house investigation had been conducted. The chair responded that they had not received any complaint, and that they had been awaiting the outcome of the criminal investigation.
Mr Lew expressed frustration that there seemed to be ongoing confusion concerning the status of the case, claiming that they received mixed signals from the State Prosecutor, along with significant delays.
Ultimately, he said, Mr Baleitavua sent him a copy of a letter from the State Prosecutor, stating that he was no longer under investigation.
The VNPF chairman informed the Daily Post that, effective June 21, 2017, Mr Baleitavua tendered his resignation to the board.
Asked why there was no internal investigation into what appears to be a clear and corroborated breach of staff rules and regulations, the chairman insisted that Ms Lango had taken her complaint ‘outside’, and that no internal human resources complaint had been initiated.
Ms Lango flatly denies this, and told the Daily Post that she lodged a complaint with Human Resources immediately afterward, before she lodged the criminal complaint. She maintains that the criminal complaint and the accusation of professional misconduct are two separate and distinct undertakings.
The June 20 legal opinion concurs, stating that “the complaint needs to be dealt with internally separately from any criminal proceedings.”
She further alleges that VNPF staff actively tried to intervene with the investigation both with the police and with the State Prosecutor. This charge was flatly denied by both VNPF board and management when confronted with the allegation, who insisted that neither staff nor management had any contact or interaction whatsoever with the investigation.
But a written statement from Ms Lango describes an event in which she witnessed two staff members descend from a company vehicle in which Mr Baleitavua was sitting, and enter the police station. She claims that she spoke to an officer, who told her that they had come seeking the investigating officer in her complaint.
Asked why Ms Lango was dismissed, Mr Lew first reminded the Daily Post that VNPF policies allowed for the termination of permanent staff without cause, provided the three-month notice period was paid out in full. This is supported by a June 20 legal opinion solicited by the board.
Mr Lew insisted that Ms Lango’s dismissal was in no way related to the sexual harassment complaint, and hinted at ‘other reasons’ without providing details.
For her part Ms Lango described a number of tense confrontations with senior management in which she was accused of non-performance. She claims these accusations were unjustified.
In a follow-up interview with the Daily Post, she responded that if the Fund had reasons for sacking her, why did they not provide them in her letter of dismissal?
This is not the first time a senior manager has been dismissed without explanation. Anniva Tarilongi lost a case against the VNPF following her dismissal as General Manager when a court ruled that dismissal without cause was valid under clause 13.1 of the staff contract.
Mr Baleitavua was also facing dismissal under identical terms, said Mr Lew, when the board was informed of his resignation.