Politics

‘Go back into a room with a predator? No thank you’

The latest investigation into the behaviour of MP Jami-Lee Ross has substantiated a number of claims made by former staff including sexualised comments and a toxic office culture. Melanie Reid and Bonnie Sumner report.

For one former staffer from the Botany office of independent MP Jami-Lee Ross, the idea of going back to work for someone who made lewd comments towards her is “disgusting”. Yet this is exactly what her employer suggested.

A new investigation for the Parliamentary Service has substantiated a number of complaints about his behaviour towards staff, adding to a long list that includes allegations of bullying and sexual harassment that has resulted in mental health implications for several former staffers.

This latest investigation into Ross was launched in late January this year by the service and conducted by an outside organisation. It looked at misconduct allegations against the former National Party MP which saw the service place three of his four Botany office staff – two women and one man – on special leave.

The results have not been released. However, Newsroom has seen the findings.

The report substantiates aspects of multiple complaints made against him by his Botany office staff, including the existence of a “toxic environment” within the office and that Ross engaged in “lies and mind games” with a staff member.

Allegations that Ross made inappropriate sexualised comments to a female staff member were also substantiated “in part”.

Complaints of 'bullying' could not be substantiated, the inquiry found.

The MP did not respond to Newsroom's request for comment.

Despite the number of complaints and the inquiry's findings about Ross, the service continues to allow young women to work in his office, and even offered complainants their jobs back.

Newsroom has gained two further exclusive interviews about the trauma of working for Ross, bringing to 10 the total number of complainants we have heard from, some making formal complaints about the MP.

One staffer says she can’t even fly into Wellington, so intense is her fear of Ross. Another contacted the parliamentary staff employer crying and asking for help but says she was ignored.

Many have told Newsroom they cannot understand why there have been no repercussions for the MP and has left them asking why the Parliamentary Service seems to have no qualms employing young women in his office.

In 2018 Newsroom published an expose covering seven people who came forward with harrowing stories about their experiences working with or being involved with Ross. Two included sexual relationships with the married MP. One woman said Ross targeted her for a relationship after consistent and repeated pressure which evolved into controlling behaviour, “incoherent rages”, and “brutal sex”.

The revelations helped trigger an inquiry carried out by independent culture change contractor Debbie Francis into bullying and sexual harassment within Parliament. The report, released last year, confirmed a systemic culture of both and resulted in 88 recommendations for change, which the Parliamentary Service chief executive Rafael Gonzalez-Montero says it has started to implement.

However, former staffers in the Botany office say nothing appears to have changed as a result of the parliamentary inquiry. “You would think that after the Francis review was completed that something would have been done about Jami-Lee’s behaviour. But of course nothing has come from it. If this was in any other workplace he would have lost his job. His behaviour is continuous and is dangerous. He needs to be removed from his position of power so that no man or woman is ever subjected to his abuse again. I think it is important people start to recognise that these movements in the US regarding #metoo are also close to home. People need to start recognising it is happening in their own backyard.”

‘Go back into a room with a predator?’

When the latest investigation ended, the service offered the three staffers on special leave the chance to take part in a process with Ross to work through issues they had raised and potentially return to their jobs.

All three declined and have since formally ended their employment with the service, one of whom is baffled it would even suggest returning to the office of the same perpetrator who had caused her to leave.

“I’m furious with Parliamentary Service. They put me in a situation where I wasn’t safe. They didn’t care about their duty of care at all. They didn’t act when I made these complaints even after his history. In the end it took me to lose my job for them to actually do something about it and even after the investigation, he’s still in this position of power and on a six figure salary living comfortably while I’m unemployed during an economic crisis. I don’t see how it’s ended up this way that I’m the one without a job and he’s still continuing - but I’m just glad I don’t work for them anymore.

“Why would I want to go back into an office with someone who has substantiated sexual harassment claims against me? I’m baffled that they think even suggesting that is a good idea. Go back into a room with a predator? No thank you.”

For another former staff member, it was the manipulation and mind games that drove him to make the complaint and says his time working for Ross severely impacted his mental health.

“It was the most stressful and toxic environment I’ve ever experienced. I told myself I should quit and get out so many times but I held on as long as I could. I would tell myself to just try to get to the end of the week, or the end of the month, but it got to the point where my only options were to stay and have a complete breakdown or get out.

“I had to leave for the sake of my physical and mental health. I don’t want to experience anything like that ever again. It was unbearable.”

Complaints about staff allegedly being bullied and humiliated were not substantiated by the investigation.

The formal complaints related to incidents that took place during 2019 and involved staff working in the east Auckland office Ross set up as an independent MP after his spectacular falling out with National.

Ross left National in late 2018 and became an independent MP after alleging corruption by his leader Simon Bridges, and facing bullying and sexual impropriety claims by numerous women, revealed by Newsroom.

Complaints made for months

One staff member says when she tried to take her concerns to Parliamentary Service before her departure, they were “swept under the rug”.

Another person with knowledge of the situation said those concerns went to the service as far back as mid-2019.

“I started telling my manager from July last year about all the inappropriate things he was saying. Every week there would be something new - bullying, or being rude - and to other staff, too, not just me. And it built up to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore,” says one former colleague.

Another ex-staff member agrees: “He is just a creep. Once he said he would have sex with me if he could. He was always saying lewd things like that.”

It is unknown what action was taken then in relation to those issues, but a spokesperson for the service said it moved “as soon as a formal complaint” was lodged.

Ross at the time denied behaving inappropriately with his staff and said he hoped he would be given the chance to clear his name.

“While I don’t accept that I have acted in an inappropriate manner, the job, for all in the team, is performed under high pressure and stress at times,” he said.

But a former staff member disputes Ross’ claims. “This is not true. The job only involved pressure when Jami-Lee was in the office, as he made everyone uncomfortable and you constantly felt like you were walking on eggshells. He also knew exactly what the claims were against him, and I think this just speaks to who he is - again playing the victim.”

Ross said with such a small team of assigned staff, not all personalities can or do gel. “If I am meant to have said anything that has offended or upset any employee, once I know what this is, I will confront that.”

The MP appeared to blame his political opponents for the inquiry.

“I have a number of political adversaries who seek to see me isolated and under attack for their own political advantage.”

Again, former staff deny Ross’ claims. “There were no political adversaries who were seeking to ‘attack’ him for their personal gain. He has brought himself down without the help of anyone else. This seems to be Jami-Lee's go-to to defend himself. In no way, shape or form were any political adversaries involved in these allegations whatsoever. Jami-Lee is once again playing the victim and taking no responsibility for his actions.”

Another former staff member says she is worried nothing has changed and Parliamentary Service has not taken appropriate action as a result of the inquiry.

“They won’t tell me anything about what they’ve been doing to protect other staff or what they’re going to do about his behaviour. They’re being very secretive and basically said it’s all confidential and I don’t get to know any of it.”

“When the investigation had been completed I said ‘well these claims have been substantiated and so now what happens with him?’ And they couldn’t give me an answer. They’re still hiring women in that office. It’s so unacceptable, I can’t believe it.”

Jami-Lee Ross is in a fight for survival against National's Christopher Luxon.

In the first round of allegations against Ross in late 2018 the MP was accused of bullying or harassment by seven women, with two of the cases involving sexual relationships.

One woman told Newsroom she believed Ross used their affair to manipulate her for information about key National Party figures.

Three of the seven women said they had breakdowns, with two of them seeking medical help.

Following the revelations, Ross was briefly detained under the Mental Health Act after going missing one night.

One former staffer says she finds it hard to believe Ross was ever the victim.

“You know he made that podcast about how he’s the victim, how he was so sad this was happening to him and he thought he was going to take his own life, but honestly it was hard to believe because he’s so manipulative, he would say things to make people feel sorry for him. I find anything he says quite hard to believe.”

The three women who said they suffered breakdowns as a result of Ross’ behaviour aren’t the only people who believe their mental health deteriorated due to his actions.

Another of his former staff members told Newsroom he had suicidal thoughts from the stress and anxiety he experienced while working for the MP.

“It takes time for the impact of what Jami-Lee does to wear off and leave your system and it’s an extremely slow and painful process. It’s a traumatic thing to go through and can take you to a dark place mentally and emotionally. Seeing how badly he can treat people is disturbing. I feel very sorry for anyone who has the misfortune to work for him in the future. It’s not an experience I would wish on anyone else.”

Another agrees and says structural change needs to occur in order to combat the culture within Parliament: “What has become clear from the investigation is there are power structures within New Zealand which allow for predators to remain in their positions of power... It is disgraceful that the Parliamentary Service are protecting these people. New Zealand needs to know these are the types of people that have control in running the country."

The Parliamentary Service would not discuss the inquiry into Ross or its findings, saying only that appropriate processes had been followed and the recommendations from the previous inquiry at Parliament were being implemented (29 completed and 40 underway). It also confirmed the inquiry cost $34,000 to conduct.

In a written answer it added: "As always, we encourage any staff who feel they have experienced inappropriate behaviours in the workplace to let us know. We take all reports extremely seriously and will act immediately."

Ross is one of four men facing criminal charges the Serious Fraud Office laid early this year in relation to two large donations paid into a National Party electorate bank account in 2017 and 2018.

He and his three co-accused have pleaded not guilty to the charges and will go on trial in the High Court at Auckland in September 2021. The trial is expected to last six weeks.

Ross is being challenged for the Botany seat at this year’s general election by candidates including the National Party’s Christopher Luxon, the former chief executive of Air New Zealand.

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