Prosecutors had to wait almost seven years, but Etuate Lavulavu will soon answer in court to charges that he sold falsified documents to help undocumented Tongan immigrants secure U.S. citizenship.
Some 26 felony charges were filed against Lavulavu and two co-defendants in 1997 by the state Attorney General's Office. The co-defendants Lavulavu's brother Samuela Lavulavu, and Ana Malia Fuka were arrested and prosecuted. Etuate Lavulavu had evaded authorities until this week.
"This was an old warrant, 1997, we just finally got him," said attorney general spokesman Ric Cantrell, who did not know how authorities learned Lavulavu was in Utah. "So it's pretty satisfying."
Lavulavu, a member of the Tongan Parliament who has lived in Orem, was arrested Wednesday at the Salt Lake City International Airport. Friday night, he remained in the Salt Lake County Jail, awaiting the posting of a $50,000 property bond.
Bond was set Friday in 3rd District Court, where Lavulavu entered a not guilty plea to the charges.
Deputy Attorney General Pat Nolan said he has been unable to determine if Lavulavu's status as a Tongan government official should have allowed him diplomatic immunity. Lavulavu's attorney, Phil Uipi, also was unclear, but he said Friday the issue is moot because bail was granted.
The court also granted Lavulavu permission to travel to Bangladesh to attend a meeting of the Royal Commonwealth, but ordered him to return to Salt Lake City for a Dec. 8 status conference before Judge William Barrett.
"The court and the state have been kind, I suspect because of his position (in government)," Uipi said. "He won't be a flight risk."
Uipi said Lavulavu was probably unaware of the outstanding warrant for his arrest because in 1997 he had left Utah prior to the charges being filed.
Nolan said the state believes Etuate Lavulavu is guilty of 11 third-degree felonies, including forgery, recording false or forged instruments. Third degree felonies are punishable by up to five years in the state prison and $5,000 in fines.
In a probable cause statement filed in 1997, the state alleges that the Lavulavu brothers and Fuka, forged a host of documents including "delayed birth certificates."
Delayed birth certificates are legally granted by the Utah Bureau of Vital Statistics in cases where reporting a birth is not made in timely manner, such as an in-home birth, charging documents state. Delayed birth certificates can be issued decades after a person is born, only after supporting documents, such as school or church records, can verify the date and place of birth.
Prosecutors say the trio also forged those supporting documents, including LDS blessing, christening and confirmations certificates, school district letters and affidavits from parents. Many of those were also improperly "notarized" by Etuate Lavulavu.
Some people paid as much as $2,000 to obtain the documents, the charges states.
Investigators also discovered the Lavulavu brothers created multiple identities for themselves and had acquired multiple Utah driver licenses.
Samuela Lavulavu, now 47, pleaded guilty to three third-degree felonies; one each of forgery, illegal use of a birth certificate and recording false/forged instruments. He was sentenced to three concurrent terms of five years in prison, which was then suspended. He eventually violated his three years' probation and spent almost five months in the Salt Lake County Jail in 1998.
Samuela Lavulavu, who lives in Orem, told the Deseret Morning News on Thursday that his brother was never involved in the forgery scam.
Fuka, now 42, pleaded guilty to two counts of forgery and one of recording false/forged instruments. He was sentenced to up to five years in prison. The sentence was suspended in favor of three years probation and several thousand dollars in fines. Her relationship to the Lavulavu brothers is not made clear in any court documents.
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