Politics

Words matter to these civil servants, Mr Peters

Journalists and opposing politicians seldom have the opportunity to precisely fact-check - with access to his documents - claims made by Winston Peters. But one government department has done it.

A Winston Peters interview on RNZ in August 2017 has featured repeatedly in his High Court privacy case.

Peters had denied, to RNZ, a report by Newsroom that he was billed $18,000 by the Ministry of Social Development for the seven-year overpayment, in an interview that also ran in a story on the Stuff website on August 28, 2017.

The MP said he repaid "way less" than $18,000 and then said it again:

"To say I repaid $18,000 is demonstrably false."

It was a claim that was near impossible for RNZ, Stuff or anyone else to explore one way or the other, given the privacy issues involved between the two parties.

But the Ministry of Social Development knew the right answer.

And when Peters sued the ministry, with its chief executive, the State Services Commissioner and two former National cabinet ministers, over the leak of his superannuation issue, the ministry had its chance to fact-check him.

Fact-check it did. In a way that possibly only a substantial arm of the state with meticulous record-keeping could.

He didn't pay back $18,000. The court heard, first from Peters on day one and then repeatedly from others, that he repaid $17,936.43.

It was court evidence so is accepted as demonstrably true rather than his claim of "demonstrably false".

In the same Stuff story, Peters made the following claims, all fact-checked by MSD in preparing for its officers' time in the court-room. This interview was after he had looked into the problem, had it explained to him and received and paid the invoice for the debt he owed:

- Peters claimed the overpayment likely started in 2013/14. MSD staff and Peters confirmed in court it started on April 12, 2010, the day he applied for it.

- Peters said he had asked in 2017 to speak to the person who dealt with his case in 2010 but that person no longer worked there so couldn't act as a witness. MSD witnesses told the court the staff member worked in 2017 at the same office, in the same role, and does so until this day. She gave evidence for MSD to defend Peters' claim. An MSD witness denied Peters had asked her in 2017 if he could speak to that original case manager.

Peters had said about his repayment: "The reality is a payment like that also attracts interest." An MSD witness told the court she had seen this claim by Peters and it was wrong. The ministry never charged interest on debts it wanted repaid and no issue of financial penalties would arise unless fraud had been involved, which was not the case for Peters.

- Another MSD witness told the court she had seen in a media report in 2017 that Peters had claimed he had not received the full superannuation because his payment had been "abated". She said no such abatement existed and the records back to 2010 showed he had been paid the full rate.

- Evidence from the official who dealt with Peters in 2017 said: "I remember reading in the media that Mr Peters was saying MSD had been unable to resolve how the mistake happened. That is not correct. It was very clear to me, which I communicated to Mr Peters in our meeting, that he had been paid the incorrect rate of superannuation as a result of his declaring at question 26 that he was in a relationship and completing the partner details accordingly. He had been paid in accordance with his declaration - as a single person."

A regional official said she was aware of Peters' evidence that his application form was incomplete because he had not ticked a box on his current relationship status. "Based on all my service experience I do not consider the form is incomplete and I am not surprised it was processed in the form. The key information needed to determine Mr Peters' relationship status was provided, i.e that he was separated."

- Another official also challenged the claim MSD had made the original mistake. "I'm a bit of a perfectionist at times," the case manager he dealt with in 2010 told the court. "It was hard to hear that I had made a mistake. I was upset because I knew this was not correct, but I had no way to defend myself."

- Further, she said media reported Peters saying there appeared to have been an alteration on his application form and no one knew how it had been made. "Categorically, we do not alter forms," she said.

- Two MSD officials recalled Peters having told media he had dealt, in 2010, with a "very senior" MSD official. The woman concerned told the court: "He referred to me as a very senior person at MSD. I definitely do not consider myself a very senior person at MSD. Case manager is hardly what I call very senior."

Throughout the week of evidence, MSD officials or the Crown's lawyer, Victoria Casey QC, challenged Peters' version of events. 

In this story, they alleged Peters had made multiple errors on filling out his form, and dated his signature on it on a different day to that which he claimed. He has also cited in evidence an incorrect and irrelevant statistic about MSD cases involving relationship issues.

In this story, they challenged his claims over an MSD policy and a public service pre-election protocol.

In this story, the court heard three staff from the office at which he applied for super in 2010 would give evidence that Peters attended alone and his partner Jan Trotman was not there. Both the MP and Trotman gave evidence that she was there, but the three officials appeared later in the week and on oath repeated their firm belief that he had been alone at all times.

MSD was at pains in 2017 when the overpayment issue arose after Trotman had applied for her own superannuation to find and hold securely all the documentation.

One official told the court she and a centre manager had gone to a storage facility called Iron Mountain to search boxes of MSD records. They "trawled through boxes and boxes, going back years to try to find the paperwork and Mr Peters' application form".

"Once we found the right box I retrieved the whole box so it would not be obvious from what we had taken that we had an interest in Mr Peters' file."

The Crown's defence, outlined by Casey late in the week, says officials processed Peters' case correctly at all times and all discussion within the ministry and to senior officials and ministers was conducted lawfully under the auspices of the Privacy Act. 

It says the actions of the former chief executive of MSD, Brendan Boyle, in briefing his minister, Anne Tolley, once the matter had been dealt with, and of the State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes doing likewise with his minister Paula Bennett, were lawful and appropriate within "sensible, pragmatic rules of the operation of executive government".

Casey said: "Mr Peters has alleged Mr Hughes, the State Services Commissioner, and the former chief executive of the longest standing in the public service both acted in bad faith.

"These are extremely serious allegations to be made. For them to be made by the Deputy Prime Minister in any capacity is extraordinary.

"Mr Peters has presented no evidence that could possibly support them. The allegations are scandalous and improper and should never have been made."

The hearing resumes on Monday when the former head of the Prime Minister's Department, Sir Maarten Wevers, will appear as an expert witness for the Crown defendants, followed by Hughes and Boyle. 

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