Inside the Peters leak: how to escape the net
Newly-released documents into the leaking of Winston Peters' superannuation details show the difficulties in tracking down the leaker - and offer some help to a public servant who does want to blow the whistle to the media, as Sam Sachdeva reports.
A public servant who inappropriately looked at Winston Peters’ superannuation records was the subject of an HR investigation, her employer has confirmed.
However, the Ministry of Social Development staffer was not responsible for the leaking of Peters’ Super overpayment, only viewing his record after widespread media coverage.
During last year’s election campaign, the New Zealand First leader confirmed he had received higher superannuation payments than he was entitled to for seven years, after a number of media outlets including Newsroom received anonymous tips about the overpayment.
MSD, the Department of Internal Affairs (which has responsibility for ministerial staff) and Inland Revenue all launched investigations to determine whether their staff had been the source of the leak (all ultimately failed to find any leaker).
Copies of the final MSD and DIA reports outlining investigators’ work, released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act after months of delays, offer nothing in the way of a smoking gun but show the lengths they went to and the difficulties they encountered along the way.
MSD workplace integrity manager Debbie Raines was tasked with investigating whether any ministry staff had been responsible for the leak, concluding in a September 15 report to deputy chief executive Merv Dacre there was no evidence suggesting that was the case.
Raines’ investigation included email and phone number “sweeps” to find any communication with journalists at specific media outlets, including Newshub journalist Lloyd Burr and Newsroom’s Tim Murphy and Melanie Reid.
Investigators also carried out document-tracking to determine whether reports related to Peters’ case had been emailed to external addresses.
The 41 MSD staff who had been involved in some way in Peters’ case were approached to account for their actions.
Raines said the email and telephone sweeps revealed nothing of concern, with all activity either for a valid business purpose or of a personal nature.
Face-to-face interviews were carried out with all 12 staff who had full access to and knowledge of all information about Peters’ case. Raines said she was satisfied that all staff had valid business reasons for their involvement, acted professionally at all times and understood the sensitivity and importance of confidentiality in the case.
Another 29 staff with limited access to information about Peters’ case were asked to provide written declarations about the nature of their involvement.
“Footprinting” across MSD’s systems identified one staff member who had inappropriately accessed Peters’ records. However, she was ruled out as a suspect, as she accessed the information on August 28 - after the story first broke - out of curiosity.
Raines recommended the woman be referred to HR for an investigation under the ministry’s code of conduct.
An MSD spokeswoman said the HR investigation had been completed, but would not provide any information on the outcome as it was an individual employment matter.
The DIA’s investigation into the leak was carried out by the Ministry of Education’s chief internal auditor James Jong.
Jong said five Ministerial Services staffers, and one private secretary seconded from MSD, knew about Peters’ superannuation overpayment before it was reported by media.
However, no evidence was found to indicate any of them were responsible for sharing the information with media or any other third party.
Each of the five staffers was interviewed and asked about what they were told, what they did with the information, their relationships with third parties including media, and whether they were involved in the leak.
The report is heavily redacted, making it difficult to determine the flow of information.
However, it seems to show concerns about the disclosures of at least one staffer, who was called in for a second interview after investigators found another person had been told of Peters’ overpayment.
“[Redacted] was asked to recount if [they] had informed anyone else about the matter. [They] could not recall telling the [person], but did not discount that [they] could have done so ‘in passing’ as part of a broader discussion of superannuation matters.”
Another staffer, who appeared to be in a relationship with another Ministerial Services employee familiar with the Peters case, disclosed a personal friendship with Burr and said they had met on August 24.
However, the staffer said there had been no discussion or questions about Peters’ superannuation.
Jong said MPs, ministers and Parliamentary Service staff also fell outside the scope of his investigation.
Peters declined to comment to Newsroom about the internal investigations.
How to leak (and get away with it)
Handily, the documents also offer some hints on how a budding Deep Throat in waiting could share an issue of concern with their friendly neighbourhood media outlet.
Both departments relied in large part on digital records, turning to sweeps of email accounts, cellphone records and landline logs of staffers who had accessed or knew of Peters’ superannuation details.
MSD used “footprinting” of its IT systems to determine who had accessed Peters’ files and whether they had a valid business reason for doing so; that would appear difficult to circumvent, meaning a public servant wishing to share details with the media had better have a legitimate reason for knowing about it in the first place.
MSD and DIA also searched for any emails or phone calls between their staff and Newshub (which broke the story) or Newsroom (identified by MSD as an “early chaser”).
MSD's email searches were initially based on "headline information" such as the sender, recipient and subject headline (so leakers might want to avoid putting anything too incriminating in there).
That turned up little of any value, in part due to a shortcoming identified by Jong: as searches were conducted only on records, networks and devices managed by Ministerial Services or the Parliamentary Service, he had to rely on “signed attestations” that information was not shared through other means, such as social interactions or a private device.
While Newsroom would of course advise against false declarations, that shows using a personal phone or computer - or better yet, a face-to-face encounter - may be the best way to share information while avoiding detection.
MSD also acknowledged “significant limitations” in its use of document-tracking in ministry systems to determine whether any reports had been shared with outside parties.
“A person with intent to use these documents (or remove them from the ministry) could use any number of options to remove these documents without leaving any footprint e.g. they could simply print it and walk out with it.”
We may live in a digital age, but it appears analogue methods can be best when it comes to staying off the radar.