Will ‘Limogate’ investigation reach top gear?

With the news a Queen’s Counsel will head the investigation into the leak of MPs’ expenses, the affair has taken on added significance. National appears confident the leaker isn’t one of their own, but a definitive answer may be hard to find, as Sam Sachdeva writes.

“Limogate”, as the leak of MPs’ expenses has somewhat facetiously become known, is on the face of it a fairly trifling scandal.

After all, this was not classified or confidential information: it was already due to be released as part of a wider disclosure regime, with the leaker simply jumping the gun by a few days.

As for National leader Simon Bridges’ spending, as highlighted by Newshub - the organisation which received the leak - that’s also less than thrilling.

There’s no suggestion that Bridges has been misusing taxpayer money by taking his Crown car on personal joyrides.

On the back of a three-month regional roadshow, his bill was always going to be high; that is within the rules, although there is a wider question to be asked about whether parties should bear some of the cost of such politicking.

Yet Speaker Trevor Mallard’s decision to appoint an as yet unknown QC to head the investigation dramatically increases the stakes at Parliament.

The broader concern which drove the need for the inquiry, according to Mallard, was the security of MPs’ personal information.

“In my opinion, someone has deliberately undermined either an individual or the system, and I want us if at all possible to get to the bottom of it.”

That was echoed by senior National MP Gerry Brownlee, who said the issue was not Bridges’ spending but “the trust that should exist between members of Parliament and their constituents”.

Why leak something which is going to be released all and sundry anyway? It seems a high risk, low reward move, given the likely punishment if they’re caught.

It’s not the “what”, but the “who” and “why” which is most intriguing.

Why leak something which is going to be released all and sundry anyway? It seems a high risk, low reward move, given the likely punishment if they’re caught.

As for the who, the shortlist of suspects is pretty damned long: those with access to the information included the Speaker’s office, members of the Parliamentary Service and Parliamentary Library, and all 56 MPs in National’s caucus.

Predictably, there has been the usual flood of wild allegations from frothing partisans, and ridiculous claims of corrupt journalism.

Bridges has kept his head down somewhat since the leak.

He eschewed his usual press conference with media before heading to Question Time, and failed to front after Mallard’s announcement, with Brownlee instead fielding questions.

Government MPs were more than happy to make noise in his stead, with New Zealand First’s Darroch Ball brandishing photos of “suspects” during Wednesday’s general debate before showing a photo of Bridges himself.

“It’s a false flag operation,” he cried, before adding: “On this side of the house, we’ve got popcorn - on that side they’ve got the knives out.”

A National leak?

It’s that suggestion of infighting which presents the greatest risk for Bridges. Having demanded a high-level inquiry, what happens if one of his MPs does turn out to be the culprit?

National appears confident that will not be the case: Brownlee said the caucus had all agreed to sign a waiver allowing access to their computer systems, as is necessary to address the issue of parliamentary privilege.

But that it is even a possibility demonstrates the odd position Bridges is in, leading a party riding high in the polls but with personal ratings leaving himself open to attack.

Given there is a long time until the next election, there seems little need from panic from National while its party polling stays high.

But with Jacinda Ardern’s stratospheric rise last year, the party may be looking for a similar circuit breaker.

If [the documents] were shared via a personal device, or in person with later alteration, that may make a smoking gun somewhat hard to find.

Whether a National MP or a Parliamentary Service employee, Mallard appears confident the culprit will be found.

The QC will be assisted by an employment lawyer and a forensic ICT specialist, who will look through the computer systems to see who emailed, forwarded or printed the relevant expense documents as displayed by Newshub.

“Unless they have incredible expertise, they will be identified,” he proclaimed.

However, recent investigations into the leak of Winston Peters’ superannuation details provide some idea of how difficult it can be to track down a culprit.

Mallard suggested his investigators would have an easy task, saying “all evidence on this is that it was transmitted electronically” given the format of documents showed by Newshub.

But if they were shared via a personal device, or in person with later alteration, that may make a smoking gun somewhat hard to find.

With no start or finish date, this investigation could drag out for weeks and fail to find a culprit: a worst-case scenario for Bridges.

Mallard hopes this won’t be the case, suggesting the threat of a high-powered investigation could smoke out the guilty party.

With the risk of spending a lot of money to little effect, he'll hope that's the case.

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