Oravida

Collins cleared; Slater lied

On the same day as the Cheryl Gwynn report was released, we also got the release Justice Chisholm’s report into Judith Collins and the allegations that she undermined former-SFO head Adam Feeley.

The report was ordered after the release of an email from Cameron Slater, detailing Judith Collins’ apparent involvement in a plot to undermine Mr Feeley. The email stated:

“I also spoke at length with the Minister responsible today (Judith Collins). She is gunning for Feeley. Any information that we can provide her on his background is appreciated. I have outlined for her a coming blog post about the massive staff turnover and she has added that to the review of the State Services Commissioner. She is using his review of these events to go on a trawl looking for anything else. It is my opinion that Feeley’s position is untenable.”

Cameron Slater’s explanation was that he had “embellished” his email:

“Embellished is a good word. It’s better than a lie, isn’t it?”

At the time, I wrote that if Slater had merely embellished, rather than lied, there were still grounds for Collins’ resignation, given the following statements of fact contained in Slater’s email:

  • Slater spoke to Collins, and the conversation was at least partly about Feeley.
  • Slater discussed with Collins his Whaleoil campaign against Feeley.
  • Collins stated that she intended to pass on Slater’s blog material to the State Services Commissioner.

Essentially, for the Chisholm report to clear Collins’ name, Justice Chisholm had to find that Slater was a liar. Well, that’s pretty much what happened. Here’s the report at para 272:

“The final point concerns Mr Slater’s evidence. When he was interviewed by the inquiry he was in the unenviable position of trying to justify the contents of some of the emails while at the same time doing what he could to protect Ms Collins. On top of that he was trying to remember conversations that took place about three years ago. While I believe that Mr Slater was genuinely trying to assist the inquiry, I decided that his evidence should be approached with great caution, especially where it conflicted with other evidence or the documentary record. However, having said that, there was little in Mr Slater’s evidence that directly supported the proposition that Ms Collins had undermined or attempted to undermine Mr Feeley.”

The report sets out pieces of the transcript of Slater’s evidence to Justice Chisholm, and on several occasions Slater openly admits that he lied in his email correspondence to make himself look big.

I had assumed that it would be almost impossible for Collins to be cleared, as finding definitively that she had had no involvement in the anti-Feeley conspiracy would undoubtedly be difficult. Nonetheless, the report finds no evidence whatsoever to implicate her. The documentary record supports her evidence, and indeed supports the evidence of all those spoken to as part of the inquiry (Cameron Slater’s evidence aside).

The report has certainly received its share of criticism. Several people weren’t interviewed, who perhaps should have been, including Cathy Odgers. Nonetheless, in Ms Odgers’ case, she had provided a lengthy affidavit, which was accepted by Justice Chisholm. Frankly, I find it hard to see how additional interviews with Odgers or Mark Hotchin could have helped implicate Collins. Cameron Slater was the alleged conduit of information to and from her, and Collins essentially lived or died by his evidence.

And so, Collins has been cleared. Can she make it back as a Minister? You’d have to assume not. The multitude of negative headlines she’s generated since the Oravida scandal must surely have resulted in severe concerns from her colleagues as to her professional judgment and personal character. Stranger things have happened though. If a few currently-serving Ministers suffer meltdowns in their portfolios (a la Corrections), she might just find a pathway back to redemption. In politics, nothing’s impossible…

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Judith Collins resigns

Oravida and the mysterious Chinese border control official, the Simon Pleasants leak, Bronwyn Pullar’s Privacy Commission complaint, plotting to roll John Key after the election – the allegations just kept coming.

Now there’s the allegation that she conspired with Cameron Slater and others to discredit former Serious Fraud Office director Adam Feeley. This while she was Minister of Justice – the Minister in charge of the SFO.

She’s resigned as a Minister, and John Key has accepted that resignation. As with the Oravida saga, she believes that she’s the victim here (the vast left wing smear campaign continues…), and she’s resigning to focus on clearing her name. She’ll be staying on as MP for Papakura though, although John Key, in his press conference at the Beehive, made it clear that she could not expect a Ministerial role if National is re-elected (not at least until her name is cleared).

A 2011 email from Slater to Carrick Graham and others was sent anonymously to John Key’s office last night.

The Cameron Slater email that has resulted in Judith Collins' resignation

The Cameron Slater email that has resulted in Judith Collins’ resignation

The email includes the following paragraphs (some grammar/spelling fixed):

I am maintaining daily communications with Jared Savage at the Herald and he is passing information directly to me that the Herald can’t run and so are feeding me to run on the blog. In the meantime I also have additional information flowing in via my tipline. That information will be drip fed into the media or via my blog.

and

I also spoke at length with the Minister responsible today (Judith Collins). She is gunning for Feeley. Any information that we can provide her on his background is appreciated. I have outlined for her a coming blog post about the massive staff turnover and she has added that to the review of the State Services Commissioner. She is using his review of these events to go on a trawl looking for anything else. It is my opinion that Feeley’s position is untenable.

Given the allegations in Dirty Politics that Judith Collins was responsible for so many of the leaks that poured through the Whaleoil “tipline”, it’s hard to escape the possibility that Collins was both sending and receiving information regarding Feeley. Even if nothing flowed from her to Slater on the subject, the fact that she was at least briefed by Slater on a smear campaign against the head of the SFO is more than grounds for her resignation. That would be unacceptable from any Government Minister, let alone the Minister in charge of the SFO.

Of interest is where the email came from. It wasn’t released by Whaledump, and one would assume that if Nicky Hager had had it in his possession, it would have featured prominently in Dirty Politics. Was Slater hacked twice, or has someone in Slater’s inner circle turned against him?

Regardless of the provinence of the email, Judith Collins’ career is now officially in tatters. Since the Oravida story broke, the likelihood of her ever becoming leader of the National Party and Prime Minister was ever-decreasing. Now, the odds have to be as close to zero as they come.

Winston Peters misfires on Collins

Yesterday morning, in response to Winston Peters’ assertions that he had information on Judith Collins that would see her “gone by Monday”, I was about to write that he was probably just making it all up. Peters’ record over the last few years makes it difficult to believe much that comes out of his mouth. Anyway, I ended up being sidetracked, and by the time I got round to considering how best to say that Peters was probably being creative with the truth, he’d already appeared at Question Time, made a complete arse of himself, got kicked out of the House, and had Tau Henare extract the Michael from him. All in all, it wasn’t a crash hot day for Mr Peters.

The gist of Mr Peters’ supposed “smoking gun” was that Judith Collins had failed to declare “substantial” travel, accommodation and other costs that were paid for by the Chinese government during Ms Collins’ Ministerial trip to China last year. John Key has declared that it’s simply a technical breach that is easily rectified by an updated declaration to the Registrar of Pecuniary Interests.

There’s some doubt as to whether Ms Collins has even committed a breach at all. The explanatory notes to the Register of Pecuniary and Other Specified Interests of Members of Parliament state:

You do not need to include overseas travel in this section if the costs were incurred by yourself, a close family member, the Crown, or by a government, a parliament, or an international parliamentary organisation as part of an official parliamentary visit overseas.

“Official parliamentary visit” means one that is part of the annually approved official travel programme administered by the Office of the Clerk (the Office). On such visits, host governments or parliaments may cover internal costs such as transport and accommodation. These do not need to be registered. The Office can clarify whether a particular visit was an official parliamentary visit, or you will find them on the “Outward delegations and visits” page on the Parliament website.

Ms Collins’ trip isn’t found on Parliament’s “Outward delegations and visits” web-page, so I called the Office of the Clerk. Despite the promise that they can clarify whether an visit was an official parliamentary visit, they professed themselves to be mystified, and put me through to the Prime Minister’s Office. The PMs office didn’t want to confirm anything, declaring that to be up to Judith Collins’ office, and I was duly transferred once more. At present, I’m waiting for Collins’ office to get back to me, as it wasn’t something they could immediately answer.

Even though the travel it was in Ms Collins’ official capacity as Minister of Justice and was presumably approved by the Office of the Clerk as being official Parliamentary business, I’m not convinced that the trip is covered by the “official parliamentary visit” exemption, given the wording of the definition.

Regardless of whether a breach has technically occurred or not, Labour will not exactly be happy with Mr Peters. They’ve had to sit and watch as their carefully constructed case against Ms Collins has suddenly been transformed into a laughing stock. Most voters don’t seem to have particularly cared that Ms Collins has had a clear conflict of interest and has repeatedly lied to Parliament about it. Unfortunately, Mr Peters’ ineptitude is exactly what National needed to ensure that the Collins issue disappears from view.

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More lies from Judith Collins exposed

Rob Salmond at Polity has just exposed evidence that Judith Collins lied about her visit to Oravida’s headquarters. Mr Salmond has highlighted a document that (in Mr Salmond’s words):

It shows that Judith Collins’ visit to Oravida was an official, Ministerial visit specifically designed by the New Zealand government to improve Oravida’s, and only Oravida’s, business opportunities in China. That is something Judith Collins is strictly forbidden from doing in her Ministerial capacity, because her husband is a director of the company.

This is further evidence that Collins has used taxpayer funds to help her husband’s business, and that she has spent the last two months lying about that fact to her boss, the Parliament, and the people of New Zealand. She must resign.

So what is this document? It’s an email from Brian Hewson, the Deputy Consul-General in Shanghai, that sets out the schedule for Judith Collins’ visit to Oravida’s HQ (copy included here). The relevant incriminating part of the schedule is as follows:

Meeting Brief: Oravida

Date and Time
23 October 1530-1630

Event
Visit and Tour of Oravida Facilities

Purpose / objective
To increase the profile of a successful importer and distributor of New Zealand products into China

Agenda items / event outline
1445 Depart Bureau of Justice for Oravida Offices

1530 Arrive at Office
Met by Oravida Management
Visit and tour of Oravida facilities
Afternoon tea / chance to meet management and employees

1630 Depart for Pudong International Airport

Background of organization / institution
Oravida New Zealand Ltd. is a wholly owned subsidiary of Oravida Ltd., a diversified company which owns a number of businesses in different sectors. The company is owned by Mr Deyi (Stone ) Shi and has two directors, Julia Xu and David Wong-Tung.

[…]

Attendees

Chinese side to be confirmed

New Zealand
Minister
Ambassador
Consul-General
Malcolm
Macintosh

So, Judith Collins has told Parliament and the New Zealand public (on countless occasions) that she popped in for a twenty minute stop on the way to the airport, purely because she had time. Yet according to the official schedule, this was an official Ministerial visit, planned in advance, that lasted almost two hours and involved four New Zealand officials (in addition to Ms Collins).

Let’s look at what the schedule says about the “Purpose/objective” of the visit:

To increase the profile of a successful importer and distributor of New Zealand products into China

Could it be more blunt? The purpose of the visit was to directly benefit Oravida – the company of which Collins’ husband is a director. That’s about as clear a breach of the Cabinet Manual policy on conflicts of interest as you’ll ever get.

Judith Collins told Parliament:

I was being driven around and I was assured by the ambassador that we could pop into Oravida on the way to the airport, or else I could have gone to the airport and I could have sat in the lounge for an extra long time.

As Rob Salmond writes:

This document shows that was also a lie. The meeting with Oravida was neither informal, spontaneous, nor on the way to the airport. The meeting was planned by officials long in advance, and was ticked off by Collins as part of her Ministerial itinerary before she left New Zealand.

Surely there is no possible way that Collins can explain her way out of this one. The documentation shows that Collins has repeatedly lied to Parliament. The meeting at Oravida – far from being an impromptu visit – was a pre-arranged Ministerial visit, explicitly designed to benefit the company her husband is a director of.

Surely this will be the final strike.

Judith Collins’ “private dinner” defence collapses

Judith Collins has steadfastly refused to answer questions in Parliament about her dinner with a mystery Chinese border control official, on the grounds that it was a private dinner. Well, it’s just been reported on stuff.co.nz that Ms Collins’ office was aware that the unnamed official would be at the dinner. Further, the official’s impending presence at the dinner was described as being a meeting arranged by Stone Shi, the managing director of Oravida.

Here’s a quote from an email sent from her office to the Ministery of Foreign Affairs and Trade on 15 October 2013:

“On Sunday, October 20, the minister will be having a dinner that will include (redacted name). He has agreed to meet with the minister arranged by Mr Stone Shi, Oravida. The minister would like ambassador Carl Worker and his wife to attend this dinner. A briefing from Mfat will be required.” [Emphasis added]

I’ve previously asked what sort of private dinner involves the NZ ambassador to China being invited? Well, now we know. It wasn’t a private dinner at all. It was a dinner meeting with a border control official, arranged by the managing director of a company that Ms Collins’ husband is a director of. Further, it was a dinner meeting with a Chinese official in a position to grease the wheels of Oravida’s supply chain to China. That’s a clear and direct conflict of interest, in contravention of the Cabinet Manual.

Ms Collins’ continued assertion that this was a private dinner is untenable. She has been caught lying to Parliament and should resign.

Judith Collins misses the point

Judith Collins has wheeled out her advisor, Margaret Malcolm, to defend her against the corruption allegations she’s facing. Ms Malcolm was the senior advisor who was present at the “private” dinner in China, along with Collins, Oravida’s CEO, Oravida’s managing director and the mysterious Chinese border official whose identity Ms Collins refuses to disclose.

Ms Malcolm has corroborated Ms Collins’ assertion that Oravida business was never discussed. From the stuff.co.nz article:

Malcolm, who travelled with Collins to China as her senior adviser, backed the minister’s claim that they did not discuss Oravida’s business over the dinner and that they talked mostly tourism.

“The dinner was very short and discussion was restricted due to some participants having limited English. The conversation centred around New Zealand as a tourist destination.”

She had not taken any notes in her capacity as adviser.

With all due respect to Ms Collins, that’s not the point. It doesn’t matter whether Oravida and its business was ever discussed. The issue is that Ms Collins was at a dinner with a number of senior Oravida personnel, and those Oravida personnel saw fit to bring along a Chinese border official. The only conceivable reason for the official to have been invited is that Oravida wanted to show off the level of the company’s influence with NZ politicians. “Hey, we and Minister for Justice are BFFs!”

The dinner was about benefiting Oravida – a company of which Ms Collins’ husband is a director – whether Oravida business was discussed or not. Ms Collins has been played, wittingly or unwittingly, by Oravida, and she owes a duty to reveal who the official was. To my mind, this is a conflict of interest situation, pursuant to the Cabinet Manuel, and the official’s right to privacy doesn’t exist.

UPDATE:

I’ve just noticed this passage from a NZ Herald story on Ms Collins feeling that she’s been “humanised” by the corruption debacle:

NZ Ambassador to China Carl Worker was invited to the dinner but declined.

So the NZ Ambassador to China was invited to what Collins has described as a private dinner with close personal friends? I see. I wasn’t aware that Collins was such close personal friends with our Ambassador to China. Or was the Ambassador invited by Oravida merely to add to the show of power?

Your response, Ms Collins?

Things look murkier for Judith Collins

I didn’t think there would be anything more to emerge regarding Judith Collins’ trip to China and her dinner meeting there with her friends from Oravida and that unnamed Chinese border control official. The opposition wanted the name of the official; Collins refuses to supply it – it all looked very much as if the Mexican standoff would ensue until the story ran out of legs.

Unfortunately for Ms Collins, it has now emerged that in August 2013, Julia Xu (Oravida’s managing director and Collins’ close personal friend) had written to Trade Minister Tim Groser and Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy, asking for help from the government with regard to border control issues with China. Following the Fonterra botulism scare, China implemented a new testing regime, which was said to be affecting Oravida’s exports of fresh milk to China. The letter urged the ministers to “help us navigate through this difficult time” by “working with the Chinese Government to remove this new testing requirement”.

Of course, as everyone now knows, two months later Judith Collins was in China, meeting with her friends at Orivida. The infamous “private” dinner was held, and Ms Collins apparently made idle chitchat about tourism to the unnamed Chinese border control official.

So, Oravida had explicitly raised its concerns about Chinese border control issues with two National party ministers. Then, lo and behold, two months later, when a further government minister (who just happens to be married to one of Oravida’s directors and is close personal friends with its managing director and CEO) travels to China and has dinner with a Chinese border control official.

It doesn’t matter whether Ms Collins thought the dinner was going to be private. The moment her friends at Oravida turned up at the restaurant with a border control official, it stopped being private. Collins was being used by Oravida to grease the Chinese border control wheels. Further, she was being used because of her personal links to Oravida. For that reason, those at the dinner lose any right to privacy. New Zealanders are entitled to know who this Chinese official was and the department they work at. Otherwise, this looks suspiciously like a cover-up of some rather corrupt goings on.

The assault on Collins continues

I had thought that Labour had run out of ammunition on Judith Collins and her links to Oravida. The story seemed to have run out of puff, and Hekia Parata and Simon Bridges seemed to have decided to take it in turns to implode. However, Grant Robertson doesn’t seem to have given up just yet. In Parliament, Mr Robertson continued to press Ms Collins on who exactly was at her formerly-secret dinner in China. Ms Collins continues to refuse to disclose the name of the mystery Chinese border control official who at the dinner. Her stock denial, used time and time again to Mr Robertson’s questioning, was:

“It was a private dinner. I have no ministerial responsibility to explain it.”

This didn’t wash with the Speaker, David Carter, who told her:

“This House and the public will judge that for themselves.”

Ms Collins’ response simply raises more questions than it answers. For a start, if she has no ministerial responsibility to explain who was at the dinner, what exactly was her ministerial reason for being in China in the first place. As many people have pointed out on many an occasion, Ms Collins is the Minister of Justice. She has no trade responsibilities. She has no foreign affairs responsibilities. So what was intending to achieve in China in any official ministerial capacity?

The simple fact is that Ms Collins was in China to, broadly speaking, push Brand New Zealand. She’s the Minister of Justice; she has clout, and China likes people with clout. Therefore, whatever she did, wherever she went and whoever she met should be declared. This was not a private trip – taxpayers stumped up $30,000 for it. She doesn’t get to simply say this was a private dinner and it’s no business of the taxpayer who was at it.

The other simple fact is that it was not merely a private dinner between friends, because the unnamed border control official was present, whom Ms Collins had never before met. Besides, Ms Collins has identified the personal friends that were at the dinner. The only name she refuses to give is that of the border control official. Why? If it was simply a private dinner between friends, with the only topic of conversation being NZ tourism (a strange topic of dinner conversation for personal friends), then what does it matter who this Chinese official was?

Ms Collins, by refusing to front up and provide the Chinese official’s name or position, creates the impression that there is more to the dinner than meets the eye. Oravida relies on getting NZ product through Chinese borders in order to make its money, therefore it’s curious that a Chinese border control official ends up at a dinner involving Oravida staff and a senior NZ cabinet minister – Oravida gets to show the Chinese just how many high end contacts the company has with the NZ government, which can only help grease the border control wheels. It doesn’t matter whether border control issues were never discussed at the dinner – the presence of both a Chinese border control official and Judith Collins is enough to create the impression of a conflict. Therefore, Collins has a duty to come clean and admit who the official was and what their role is.

Collins has already publicly acknowledged that she should have reported the dinner in her formal report to Cabinet. She’s now back-tracking on that, presumably because she’s realised that a dinner that should have been reported is a dinner that she should answer questions on.

Idiot/Savant v the Cabinet Office

The blogger Idiot/Savant at No Right Turn probably knows the ins and outs of the Official Information Act better than anyone. And he has sparked an interesting legal argument with the Cabinet Office over legal advice provided to John Key (see his post “Time to see if the Ombudsman will keep their word“). The particular legal advice at issue was with regard to whether Judith Collins breached the Cabinet Manual during her visit to Oravida’s HQ in China:

Last month, we learned that Judith Collins had taken time off a taxpayer-funded trip to China to endorse her husband’s company – a company which had also donated significant sums of money to the National Party. The endorsement appeared to violate the Cabinet Manual, but John Key stepped up and claimed that the Cabinet Office said it was all OK. Then, just a few days later, he admitted that he’d lied about that:

Prime Minister John Key has admitted he misled reporters over Cabinet Office advice about a controversial visit by Justice Minister Judith Collins to a Chinese company associated with her husband while on an official trip to China.

On Monday Key told media the Cabinet Office had cleared Collins of a conflict of interest after translating comments on Oravida’s website which stated that she had praised its products.

But today Key’s office confirmed that the Cabinet office had only read the English language version on the website, which did not contain those references.

 In the process, he implicitly raised serious questions about the quality of the Cabinet Office’s advice.

There’s a prior ruling by the Ombudsman on the release of Cabinet Office advice, declaring such advice to be “inherently confidential”. However, Idiot/Savant notes “an important caveat” at para 60 of the ruling:

60. I pointed out to the requesters and DPMC that if a Minister refers to Cabinet Office advice publicly in a way that is misleading or exaggerated, the countervailing public interest in disclosure is likely to outweigh the need for confidentiality.

So, given that important caveat, over to Idiot/Savant:

Once Key admitted misleading the public about the advice, I naturally requested it. And naturally, the Cabinet Office (one of our most secretive public bodies) refused my request. I’ve now complained to the Ombudsman. Let’s see if they keep their word, or if they’re just in the business of covering up for the powerful.

There are a number of different ways that the Ombudsman could handle this:

  1. Siding with Idiot/Savant and ordering disclosure of the Cabinet Office advice on public interest grounds.
  2. Siding with the Cabinet Office, by simply ruling that public interest does not outweigh the inherently confidential nature of the advice.
  3. Siding with the Cabinet Office, by arguing that the Cabinet Office’s advice was flawed, rather than the Prime Minister’s reference to the advice. Essentially, the Ombudsman would be arguing that the Cabinet Office gave advice based on incomplete information, and that John Key accurately portrayed that advice to the media. However, I’d find it difficult to see how the Ombudsman could come to this result, given Mr Key’s explicit statement that the Cabinet Office had given its advice after translating comments on Oravida’s website, when no such translation had at that stage been done. That seems to me to be a misleading reference to the Cabinet Office advice, even if it was not intentionally misleading.

It will be interesting to see how the Ombudsman views “the public interest” in this case.

And the assault on Judith Collins continues…

Someone in Labour knows how to use Google Maps, and has realised that a short trip to the airport for Judith Collins became an 80km round trip, so she could stop in at Oravida HQ for her infamous cup of milk. When asked, Ms Collins said she simply didn’t know where in Shanghai she was, which makes it all okay…

Now, if I were an opposition MP or a political journalist, I’d probably be asking Ms Collins to clarify a few details. For instance, who from Ms Collins’ camp called whom in the Oradiva camp to confirm that the cup of milk was all go? And what time was the phone call made? Was it really just an after-thought on the way to the airport? Surely not, given that would require a u-turn so that she could travel 30km in the wrong direction? Just how many phone calls between Collins’ and Oravida’s staff were there during the Shanghai trip?

Because something smells distinctly fishy.