That's according to the Kingdom's police commissioner, New Zealander Grant O'Fee.
He says at least 172 Tongans with criminal convictions had police officers write them official letters lying about their convictions so they could move to Australia, New Zealand or the United States.
Immigration officials in those countries are now reportedly following up those cases.
Commissioner O'Fee tells Bruce Hill the whole thing began with official sanction many years ago.
Presenter: Bruce Hill
Speaker: Tonga's police commissioner, Grant O'Fee
O'FEE: One of the previous Ministers who has since passed away felt the need to put this policy in place. It was an unwritten policy that he could effectively clear the record of people at his discretion. He delegated that authority without any written delegations to senior police officers and told them that they were entitled to do the same thing. So this is a practice that grew up without any written policy or directions that anyone can find. The policy carried on for ten years that we know of and we think that's all and it was drawn to my attention late last year in November. To make a long story short, we had 33 people that we thought this had happened to, and I then directed that we do a total search of our whole collection, because every time this happens, you must understand the young staff that work in our office are very diligent and do a very good job and they would make a notation on the card index every time they would clear or a letter was sent clearing an individual of any offending. They would place a notation on that index card saying that it was cleared on the direction of whoever the individual, the senior officer was that approved it.
HILL: Just to make this absolutely clear, what was happening was Tongan police officers were actually telling immigration officials or writing letters saying that this person has no criminal record, despite the fact that they often did?
O'FEE: Oh, exactly, now, that's exactly what was happening. So when the senior police officer would direct the staff in the Records Bureau, say right, I approve this person to get a clearance as they call it. The record staff would then very meticulously note on the file that Inspector So and So said we could clear this record and they would then type up a record telling, effectively telling a lie, saying that this individual has not police record.
HILL; Did money change hands in exchange for this service?
O'FEE: I have no evidence that money has changed hands. I'm not saying it didn't, I'm just saying I can't prove that right now.
You must understand these are very senior officers that were involved and investigating them is problematic with the small staff that I have. So a criminal investigation has been done by the Solicitor-General's office. I've had a verbal briefing from them. I'm just waiting for a written report from him on that investigation to see if there criminality involved, and if there's not, what disciplinary action is open to me.
HILL: I imagine you've put a stop to that practice now?
O'FEE: Well, in fact my predecessor, Chris Kelly, he wasn't aware of the scope of it, but came across one instance and he put a directorative out to say that it was to cease. I have since reiterated that, but additional to that, I've had the whole manual collection searched. So we've gone, I've had staff go right through that entire collection which took quite sometime and that's really found that there have been 172 cases of individuals who do have criminal records, where letters have been written to either prospective employers or immigration of yourselves or New Zealand and the United States saying they have no record, when in fact they have. And your point is well made. I mean you don't need to be a lawyer with an Honours degree or a very experienced police officer to know that to write a letter to another country saying this person has no criminal convictions, when in fact they do and in fact, in some cases they have very, very serious criminal convictions is at the very best an incredibly stupid thing to do.
HILL: Well effectively, you've got senior police officers who are, not to put to fine a point on it, lying?
O'FEE: Eh, that's a conclusion you could reasonably draw, yes.
HILL: Well, these 172 people who've emigrated to New Zealand and Australia and the United States have done so obviously under false pretences. Those countries are now looking at Tongans who've emigrated saying they have no criminal records. Those people's lives are now going to be turned upside down, possibly they're families, possibly they've been there for years. Do the Tongan police officers who were engaged in this realise the extent of the damage they've done to a lot of people's lives?
O'FEE: I think they're coming to that reality now, even when they're being confronted with the result of the upheaval this has caused.
My concerns are many and varied in this, to be honest, but one of my main concerns is for the folk of Tonga who are trying to get on seasonal employment work in New Zealand and Australia, and, of course, that's a very big opportunity for them to make money for their families. And so I'm just, we're doing everything we can to try to process those in now in a very transparent way and we're working very closely with New Zealand and Australia Immigration to make sure that those people, the delay that they get is absolutely minimised as much as we possibly can.
HILL: It's been a bit embarrassing for the Tonga police this, hasn't it?
O'FEE: Eh, we could have done without it, yeah.