Newsroom Special Inquiry

Death by 1000 cuts: Working for Jami-Lee Ross

They were young women starting out in employment and in politics. They had the misfortune to work for an MP called Jami-Lee Ross.

Here two more of the women, interviewed by Newsroom’s Melanie Reid and Cass Mason in their investigation into the former National MP, outline their working hell - and ongoing fears.

Ross tonight apologised to his wife for his behaviour but stopped short of personally apologising to four women whose cases Newsroom reported yesterday.

These further two testimonies back those who have gone before.

They are among a growing list of women who have told their experiences to Newsroom.

Death by a thousand cuts 

A bright young graduate had her self-esteem and mental health crushed over a period of six months working for Jami-Lee Ross in what she says was “death by a thousand cuts”.

Having graduated with three university degrees, a passion for politics and a social, outgoing personality who never missed a Young Nats event, the young woman was experiencing debilitating panic attacks during the six months she worked for Ross in his Botany office.

“It was a constant state of anxiety. Nothing I did was ever right. If you did something he didn’t like, he often wouldn’t speak to you at all for days. He made me feel like I was a complete waste of space.

“By the end, I had a full breakdown.”

Ross would tell staff to their faces that they were useless and not allow them to speak to one another.

“He would say ‘Are you serious? But I thought you went to university. You’re so useless’.”

Second-guessing herself, she would research her alleged mistakes in the Economist Style Guide and find she had done nothing wrong.

Once he even threw a phone across the room because she’d bought the wrong paper to make name tags.

“I just couldn’t do anything right. He completely destroyed my self-esteem.

“I stopped going out. I’d just stay at home, sometimes throwing up, often crying.”

The two faces of Jami-Lee Ross

Ross made no attempts to hide what the woman describes as “constantly creepy” behaviour towards women - something she didn’t have to deal with personally, as she wasn’t “his type”.

He would lavish attention on beautiful women at events and ignore everyone else.

“He’d ask us ‘What do you think of that one?’

“He liked blonde, skinny, beautiful women ... he was always kind and friendly in public.”

After chipping away at the young woman for six months he demanded she move to Wellington to take a job - giving her two weeks to move her life south.

She agreed because she felt pressured, and it was then she completely broke down.

“I made the preparations but I was sick to my stomach at the thought of it. I literally collapsed and couldn’t get out of bed. I just couldn’t go through with it.”

Fighting back tears, she told Newsroom: “For so long, he constantly said or behaved like I had major issues so I kept doubting myself. I was very young so I didn’t realise what I was experiencing was constant bullying.”

Several years later and she has made some progress, but can be derailed by certain situations - especially anything related to work appraisals and performance.

“I still get panic attacks … I feel like a failure and I haven’t fully recovered. He made me feel so stupid.”

Despite still being on medication for anxiety and depression, she’s found it difficult to talk about because she was embarrassed she had been so damaged by a backbencher.

“It’s not like he’s an important person. I used to love going out, going to parties … I’m nothing like I used to be.”

Asked her reaction to hearing the stories of the other women published by Newsroom this week, she said she felt relief.

“I was horrified but I realised that it wasn’t just me whose life he’d shattered. I wasn’t alone anymore in having my life destroyed by Jami-Lee Ross.”

Litany of lies

Another woman who worked for Ross said he bullied and belittled her, using a string of lies to discredit her work.

Also a recent graduate and a straight-A student, the young woman says she worked for Ross for a year - during which he would complain about her “sub-par” work and make inappropriate comments about her to constituents.

“He’d make sleazy, sexual comments about me while I was in the room - always when men were around, never directly to me. Once he said to a 60-year-old guy: ‘She’s about young enough for you’.

"He also made comments on my attire. I usually wore dresses, but once I wore pants and he made it clear that he didn’t like the look on me. I rarely wore them again.

“He would complain about my ‘sub-par’ work, and my work is anything but ‘sub-par’.

“My life over that period was just shit. Not good for a long time. And it’s shit now that it’s all come up again. It makes me sick.”

She said she could feel like Ross was setting her up, and would accuse her of lying over misunderstandings. She couldn’t believe how much another woman’s account of having worked for Ross - published by Newsroom - echoed her own.

On one occasion she couldn’t recall whether she’d replied to an email on his behalf for something minor. When she remembered she had - and let him know - he accused her of lying about it.

She eventually became aware of a file of information on her given to officials in Parliament. It targeted her work ethic, honesty and punctuality.

“Every single thing in there was a lie.”

He was also a control freak, she said. 

"He didn’t like me going on lunch breaks. I even felt guilty if I left the office for 10 minutes just to get a coffee. One morning, I was so sick after recovering from a migraine that my mum begged me not to go to work, but I knew I didn’t have a choice. There would be hell to pay on my return if I called in sick.

"It got to the point where I was so anxious to come to work each day that I would stand outside for five minutes, trying to will myself through the door. Total relief on the days I knew he wasn’t going to be in the office and I could breathe."

The young woman suffered from major anxiety over the year she worked for Ross, and it took her months to recover.

Now an employer herself, she said: “I would never treat my staff even 1 percent of the way I was treated.”

She said she’d still be “scared shitless” if she saw him again.

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