Politics

‘Blackmail’ allegation over Whaitiri altercation

Meka Whaitiri’s lawyers claimed a blackmail threat was made following allegations she physically manhandled a staffer, according to newly released documents.

The redacted documents released by the Department of Internal Affairs also show David Patten, the barrister who carried out the investigation, found the staffer’s claim that Whaitiri had grabbed her by the arm to be more credible than the former minister’s denial.

Last month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Whaitiri’s sacking after receiving the results of the DIA investigation.

In late August, Whaitiri stood down as a minister over what Ardern described as "a staffing matter in her ministerial office" while an investigation took place.

The released documents, including Patten's final report, shed more light on the incident, which took place after Whaitiri was absent from a media “stand-up” for ministers at the Government's summit with Ngāti Porou in Gisborne on August 27.

'Scared the living daylights out of me'

As part of his investigation, Patten interviewed Whaitiri, the staffer, and an “Employee B” who the staffer spoke to after the incident took place.

Patten said there were no witnesses to the alleged incident and a “clear difference of view” between the staffer and Whaitiri.

The staffer initially said she was grabbed “hard” on the arm and pulled outside by Whaitiri, who raised her voice and asked if she knew how to do her job.

“It was hard and it scared the living daylights out of me, actually,” the staffer said of the grab.

Whaitiri denied touching the staffer at any point, saying she simply asked her to go outside so they could talk about what happened.

Patten said the staffer’s explanation of being grabbed was more probable than Whaitiri’s denial, citing the minister’s anger at missing the stand-up and a photograph taken which showed bruising on the staffer’s arm.

He also concluded it was more likely than not that Whaitiri had raised her voice at the staffer, saying she had used “forceful and/or demanding” language which indicated her annoyance.

However, Patten concluded Whaitiri did not pull or drag her staffer outside, saying the employee walked back her initial comments to that effect.

Patten said Employee B described the staffer as looking “extremely upset…[and] stunned” immediately after the alleged incident, while the staffer herself later told him she was “too scared to go back and work in the minister’s office”.

Whaitiri response

A letter to the DIA from Whaitiri’s lawyer, Simpson Grierson partner Sally McKechnie, raised “a number of serious concerns” about the draft report and its conclusions, which it said were “not sound or sustainable”.

McKechnie mentions a “threatening email” sent to Ardern on August 29, which used “very strong language to describe the alleged events”.

She said the email included an “explicit threat” - later referred to as a “blackmail threat” - and came from someone known to a friend of the staffer who had not seen the events first hand.

McKechnie said the staffer was not questioned about the inconsistencies between the email and the staffer’s subsequent accounts, and whether she may have exaggerated the nature of the incident.

The lawyer also raised concerns about the fact Ministerial Services, rather than the staffer, initiated the complaint process, saying she may have felt she had no other choice but to continue with the process and allow a complaint to be made.

[Whaitiri's lawyer] also questioned photographic evidence of a bruise, which she said was small and not the expected shape given the action alleged to have taken place.

There was a lack of basis for a finding that Whaitiri “grabbed” the staffer on the back of the arm, which was based on a finding that the staffer’s account was more credible than Whaitiri.

McKechnie also said the staffer’s version of events appeared to have changed throughout the process, but those inconsistencies were not considered in the report.

While the draft report said there were no witnesses to the incident, there was “uncontested evidence” of a significant number of people nearby who would likely have noticed the events if they took place.

McKechnie also questioned photographic evidence of a bruise, which she said was small and not the expected shape given the action alleged to have taken place.

Inconsistencies 'well short of fatal'

However, Patten did not agree about the criticism of his conclusions, saying the staffer was not aware of the email sent to Ardern until after meeting Employee B, and as she was not the author had no control over the language used.

It was inevitable that inconsistencies could arise in investigations, but those in the staffer’s case “fall well short of being fatal” and actually enhanced her credibility, Patten said.

In a statement, Whaitiri said she had “at all times” fully cooperated with the investigation and welcomed the information release.

She contested some of the allegations, but said she was disappointed her behaviour had led to a complaint and was “committed to my own development, including better managing employment relationships”.

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