At the same time Waikato District Health Board was rocked by an expenses scandal involving its chief executive, Official Information Act [OIA] requests climbed to the highest in three years and cost taxpayers an estimated $200,000.

Of the 262 OIA requests made last year, at least 107 were from media - three times the number of media requests for official information than in the two years prior.

In October 2017 alone, the month Dr Nigel Murray resigned following a DHB investigation into his spending irregularities, 41 requests were logged by the DHB, the highest of any month in the entire three years.

Murray spent $218,000 of taxpayer money on travel for work since taking up the $560,000 per year job in July 2014. The State Services Commission is investigating the case.

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An investigation by the DHB into Murray was revealed by the Weekend Herald on July 22. For the six months from July to December last year the DHB received 170 OIA requests.

Waikato DHB chief of staff Neville Hablous said the DHB estimated the cost of responding to OIAs was on average $100,000 each year.

However he said the DHB estimated that cost doubled last year because of the greater number of requests, the fact many involved detailed analysis of financial records and a high degree of legal input.

Between July and December last year, when former Waikato DHB CEO Dr Nigel Murray's expenses scandal came to light, 170 OIA requests were made of the DHB. Photo / Christine Cornege.
Between July and December last year, when former Waikato DHB CEO Dr Nigel Murray's expenses scandal came to light, 170 OIA requests were made of the DHB. Photo / Christine Cornege.

Murray's expense receipts showing his spending were released publicly on November 3 after multiple OIA requests from the Herald.

The DHB kept them secret while its independent investigation was carried out.

In total 665 requests for information were treated officially by the DHB during the three years.

Under the Official Information Act 1982, individuals can request data, documents, correspondence and other information from any government-funded agency or Statutory Crown entity.

Hablous said most requests only take the DHB a few hours to compile. The DHB however, and most other agencies, rarely respond before the 20 working-day deadline.

Hablous said costs accumulated through:

• staff time to compile the information;

• review by a senior staff member;

• review by legal staff to ensure the DHB's obligation to release information is met unless there is good reason not to;

• making a decision on the request;

• drafting and releasing the decision and information.

Media use the OIA to expose information the public should know about but which would be kept hidden otherwise.

Agencies can charge for responses if it is a time-consuming task and Waikato DHB invoiced one requester $198.26 plus GST.

A requester can complain to the Ombudsman if they think the agency does not have a good enough reason to decline release of the information.

Of the 665 OIAs made to Waikato DHB in 2015, 2016 and 2017, 14 were referred by the requester to the Ombudsman for investigation.

Of those, four complaints were upheld, one partially upheld, the DHB was found in breach on one, another was resolved, one Ombudsman investigation was discontinued, one received no further action, three were not investigated and one was referred to the Privacy Commissioner.

The complaints related to the DHB's decision not to release copies of Serious Event Review investigations, its intention to charge for information, its delay in making a decision, its decision not to release employment and health details to third parties, and its decline to release information in the interests of public safety.

Of the 20 district health boards around the country, Waikato DHB was the only one to respond within the legislated timeframe on all 187 requests received between July 2016 and June 2017.

In that timeframe Auckland DHB received 225 requests and responded to 93 per cent within the required 20 working days.

Auckland, Southern, and Capital and Coast DHBs had the highest number of Ombudsman complaints, with five each.

Capital and Coast had the highest number of requests on 319, responding to only 79 per cent by deadline.

Whanganui DHB had the lowest number of requests on 121, responding to 88 per cent within deadline, and South Canterbury DHB had the lowest response rate within the required timeframe, on 62 per cent of 132 requests.

When the Herald requested information for this story it sent a series of questions to Waikato DHB. It was the DHB's decision to treat the questions as an OIA.