Investigations

‘He said he’d destroy me ... and here we are’

National MP Sarah Dowie transfixed Parliament this week as she gave her farewell speech, lambasting a 'predator' and accusing the media of being manipulated to destroy her. In the first of two video interviews, she speaks to Melanie Reid

We all know about the spectacular downfall of National MP Jami-Lee Ross after a kamikaze attack on his own party and leader.

We know also about his affair, breakup and public targeting of fellow MP Sarah Dowie.

This week, in her departing speech from Parliament, she spoke out about the ‘predator’ and the predicaments of women caught in abusive relationships - and she hit out at journalists who had allowed Ross to cover his own behaviour by airing personally damaging allegations against her.

But how much do we really know of what went on? Of the ways Ross was able to use a critical text message from Dowie to exact retribution to destroy her and her career?

Here, Newsroom investigations editor Melanie Reid sits down with Dowie for her first video interview.  In the second part, Dowie gives other women advice if they are caught in a relationship with a predator.

First-up, Dowie reveals her belief that Ross deliberately used the cloak of mental breakdown, and misused her text message, to try to deflect blame and accountability from himself after his failed attack in October 2018 on leader Simon Bridges.

This is a story not just about Ross and Dowie, but about how abusers operate: how they convince those around them of their own narrative, how they turn reality on its head and use others to achieve their aims, at times without their knowledge.

Dowie’s interview contains advice for other women who make wrong choices and can then be caught in manipulative and controlling relationships.

In Ross’ case there have been at least 10 people who have suffered trauma, some experiencing suicidal ideation, many seeking professional counselling after being caught in a professional and personal web with the MP.

So how did Ross manage to paint himself as the victim, pulling out a smoking gun - in the form of a text message he had kept in reserve for two months - against Dowie?

“He promised to destroy me if I didn’t play his game,” Dowie tells Reid. “So off he went.”

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So intense was the abuse at the hands of Ross – sexual, psychological and emotional – Dowie says by the time she realised what was going on, she had no idea which way was up, nor how to get out of the relationship.

“When you're in a situation where the cycles of manipulation continue to run quicker and quicker and quicker, you become so disorientated. It came to a point that I didn't want to be in that situation any longer. However I struggled with how I was going to get out, and equally was frightened of the ramifications of getting out. And at that point you know you're in a very serious situation if you're starting to question that.”

Mental health professionals use the term ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ to describe those with an inflated sense of self-worth and entitlement who exploit others without remorse, often through bullying, shaming and controlling.

It’s a term that’s thrown around a lot these days, but the complex, multi-layered manipulation that occurs when dealing with a narcissist is quite hard to describe. Dowie says to truly be engaged with a narcissist is like living in a horror story and says if she can warn anyone about this, then she has done her job.

“There are patterns of behaviour these types of characters display and in hindsight, it's very formulaic. So if we can educate women about those patterns then forewarned is forearmed. I am a smart woman. And every day I question, how could I have got caught up in this. But it absolutely happens. And I'm not the only one. How can predators go unexposed for so long? It's because they're so clever.”

Ross denies he’s a narcissist, even telling media at one point that he had asked his psychologist who had said he was not.

One of the tactics Dowie describes Ross using is to find people he can use to meet his needs and fulfil his agenda – whether that was sex, information, attention or “people he could control and then send out to do his bidding”.

“He would constantly survey a situation and look for people that could provide him with something. I call them flying monkeys. You know, people that buy into their narrative and their way of viewing the world and they equally enjoy the attention that he would give them, or the validation they would gain from him if they provided him with information. So he would send them off into the world and they would make it their mission to speak to somebody about something to garner information, to bring it back.”

Sarah Dowie with Melanie Reid in Invercargill. Photo: Screenshot.

The infamous text

One of those situations was the infamous text. In August 2018, Dowie sent a late-night message to Ross which included the words “you deserve to die”.

Before it became public knowledge, Newsroom published two stories detailing the numerous abuses Ross had carried out on, to our knowledge at that time, six victims. It seemed as though the public finally knew what Ross was like.

Soon after, Ross went missing briefly, texted Dowie that she would get her "wish", was found by police near railway lines and was temporarily sectioned to the mental health unit of Middlemore Hospital before rejoining Parliament as an independent.

What’s more – and this is an element she finds disturbing – one of Dowie’s closest friends had taken his life by walking in front of a train. Dowie says Ross knew this when he texted her in apparent distress on that day late in 2018.

“Obviously when he sent the text message, he decided to pick train tracks to wander on. I totally believe it was designed to hurt me. And it was absolutely all about getting into my head and making sure that I connected the two basically.”

She is dubious that Ross was suffering a serious mental health episode, but instead concocted a way in which to turn public opinion in his favour.

Soon after, an anonymous tipoff was made to the Crimestoppers line about the Dowie text message, a tipoff that Ross denies having anything to do with. However, Dowie has no doubt he orchestrated a police investigation into the text in order to give the media a reason to publish her name, discredit her and shift the narrative to Ross as the victim.

“I have every suspicion that he was behind the initial complaint to police about my text message and subsequently he filed a complaint himself. Now, if Jami-Lee hadn't filed that complaint, it's quite clear that that investigation would have never gone ahead.”

Contrary to popular belief, Dowie had in fact sent the "nasty" text two months before Ross’ apparent mental health breakdown and had subsequently apologised to Ross and had that apology accepted. 

“I firmly believe he used my text message as an excuse for his bad behaviour. And used it in the media,” she says. “He had no sympathy for those with mental health issues. He had no sympathy for any types of weakness whatsoever. So it never crossed my mind that he would do anything like that.”

Manipulators

One of the tactics manipulators use, Dowie says, is to convince the world those they drag into their web are equally culpable, so that when things start to unravel it becomes a "he-said, she-said" situation. 

And Dowie says this is exactly the scenario that played out in the media after her name was outed.

“The interesting thing was when I look at some of the recent dramas that have gone on, you know, news cycles have lasted two days. For me, it lasted for weeks and weeks. The so-called analysis went on for days. And some of it was just diatribe. And nobody sought to clarify points with me or make sure what they were printing was the truth. So I guess that's for the journalism fraternity to ask themselves, as to how they treated me, as to how they treat some other MPs.”

In part two of the video interview: Sarah Dowie's advice to other women trapped in relationships with predators and manipulators

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Timeline

2018

August 11: National MP Sarah Dowie sent an abusive text message to Jami-Lee Ross - with whom she had had an affair - which included the sentence “You deserve to die”.

August 15: Dowie wrote a formal apology to Ross.

August 20: Ross texted Dowie to say he had "... moved on from that text message".

October 2: Ross issued a statement saying he was standing down from his portfolios and from the front bench of the Opposition due to personal health issues.

October 15: National Leader Simon Bridges said Ross had been identified as the National Party leaker after the party's inquiry into the leaking of Bridges' travel expenses. Ross denies the accusations.

October 16: Ross alleged during a live press conference that Bridges was a corrupt politician who had violated electoral law several times, including accepting an illegal $100,000 donation from Chinese businessman Zhang Yikun. Ross publicly denied allegations he had sexually harassed several female staff. He announced his resignation from the National Party, and his intention to step down as MP by the end of the week. That same day, the National Party caucus voted to expel Ross for disloyalty. Bridges denied Ross' allegations.

October 17: Ross spoke to police in Wellington, then released an audio recording between himself and Bridges.

October 18: Newsroom published an exclusive report with four women accusing Ross of incoherent rages, harassment, and bullying behaviour.

October 18: Newsroom published another story, this time highlighting the experience of two young women who worked for Ross. One said her self-esteem and mental health were crushed, while the second said the MP bullied and belittled her.

October 19:  Ross admitted to Newstalk ZB to past extramarital affairs with two women – including a married MP. He also announced he would not resign his seat in Parliament.

October 20: Ross took a screen shot of the abusive text Dowie sent in August saying “you deserve to die” and added "you get your wish". Dowie called the National Party chief of staff and emergency services.

October 21: Ross was reported to have been admitted to a mental health facility in Auckland. He was discharged two days later.

November 28: Newsroom published a story detailing the experience of a woman who worked for Ross and felt bullied by him. 

2019

Jan 22: After police received an anonymous tip-off from Crimestoppers about the text Dowie sent him in August 2018 (which they then began investigating under the Harmful Digital Communications Act) Ross told the media it was the text that caused his mental health episode in October 2019.

Jan 25: Sarah Dowie was named as the MP with whom Ross had an affair. 

March 12: Police were reported to have referred Ross' complaint about Bridges' disclosure of political donations to the SFO. Bridges denied any wrongdoing.

July 19: Police declined to pursue charges against Dowie. 

2020

Jan 29: the SFO announced it had charged four people in relation to the claims made by Ross in 2018 around the $100,000 donation. None of the sitting National Party MPs at the time, including Simon Bridges, were among the four charged.

Feb 5: Newsroom revealed Ross was the subject of a new formal investigation by the Parliamentary Service into alleged misconduct after receiving three complaints from staff working in Ross’ Botany office. The three were placed on special leave while the complaints were investigated. Ross denied wrongdoing said he was yet to receive a copy of any complaint.

Feb 19: Ross was reported as one of four people charged by the SFO over two large donations made to National in 2017 and 2018.

Feb 25: Ross pleaded not guilty to the donation charges, was granted bail and ordered to surrender his passport.

May: The Parliamentary Service investigation into Ross ends. The three Botany office staff decline to take part in a process with Ross to potentially return to their positions.

July 21: Newsroom published the findings of the most recent investigation into Ross’ alleged misconduct, including the existence of a “toxic environment” in his Botany office and partially substantiating allegations Ross made inappropriate sexualised comments to a female staff member.

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