National officials must answer for Ross ‘cover-up’

The cover-up of concerns about Jami-Lee Ross’ conduct by National Party officials and president Peter Goodfellow is just the latest instance of inclinations towards the cover of darkness, Sam Sachdeva writes.

Following Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal, the saying "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up" entered the public lexicon - it's a phrase that may resonate with some in New Zealand at the moment.

Jami-Lee Ross’ behaviour towards women, as recounted to Newsroom first-hand, seems despicable - but the role of National Party officials, including president Peter Goodfellow, in sweeping his conduct under the carpet should also be questioned.

As first reported by Newsroom on Tuesday, complaints about the Botany MP were raised with the party’s leadership in at least one case.

The response of Goodfellow and others was not to drum Ross out of National on the grounds of poor character, but to help broker a confidentiality agreement ensuring the public would not know.

It would have seemed a poor decision at the time, but coming in the #MeToo era it has an added resonance.

A tendency towards secrecy

The Ross affair isn’t the first time questions have been raised about the judgment of Goodfellow and the party hierarchy, or their tendencies towards secrecy.

In the case of former National MP Todd Barclay, who resigned following a Newsroom investigation into allegations he illegally recorded a staff member, Goodfellow and National’s board allowed his re-selection for Clutha-Southland despite being aware of a litany of complaints about his conduct.

Glenys Dickson, the affected employee, alleged that board member Glenda Hughes had urged her to withdraw a complaint to police, citing the possible impact on National’s parliamentary majority at the time.

Dickson also received a payout from the National leaders’ budget, which then-Deputy Prime Minister Bill English said at the time was “to avoid potential legal action”.

In the case of National MP Dr Jian Yang’s ties to Chinese military intelligence - another Newsroom investigation - it was revealed that Goodfellow had handpicked the MP for its list in 2011.

After Newsroom’s investigation was published, the party president said Yang’s background had been vetted by public relations firm Saunders Unsworth - a claim later refuted by the company.

While concerns were expressed in each of those cases, it is Goodfellow’s role in the Ross saga which seems particularly concerning: not only did he look the other way, helping with the non-disclosure agreement meant the MP could continue to operate from a position of power.

Questions to be answered

Goodfellow is hardly being forthcoming about his role, saying only that “any issues that we were aware of that were raised, were dealt with at the time” - a statement that hardly seems adequate.

It is unclear exactly how much he knew about Ross' behaviour, and whether there were any further complaints to him or officials on top of the one which led to the confidentiality agreement - facts which could offer mitigation.

But if Goodfellow wants the benefit of the doubt, he owes it to the party and the public to provide as thorough an explanation as possible without compromising the privacy of the woman involved.

Most within National appear inclined to stick up for the party president, perhaps understandably given he has held the position since 2009 and presided over a period of relative stability and success - although that could change if more about the confidentiality agreement comes out.

Of course, Ross is the only one responsible for his actions, and the women’s testimony of being “nearly destroyed”, “intimidated, threatened and abused”, and “used” by the Botany MP speaks volumes.

But if this saga has taught us one thing, it is that operating in the shadows does little good for anyone.

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