Auckland QC Dr Noel Ingram has been given just nine working days to establish whether Associate Justice Minister Taito Phillip Field had a conflict of interest in an application for a work permit for a Thai overstayer who tiled his new house in Samoa.
Dr Ingram, 57, was appointed by Prime Minister Helen Clark yesterday and has been asked to report by Tuesday week, October 4.
In that time he is required to investigate and determine Mr Field's relationship with Thai tiler Sunan Siriwan and his partner, Luck, the extent of Mr Field's involvement in applying for work permits for them, any conflict of interest concerning Mr Field's involvement, and to identify any other matters necessary to provide a complete report.
Mr Siriwan went to Mr Field after Luck was deported to Thailand early this year with their 2-year-old son, Henry. A few weeks later Mr Siriwan went to Samoa, where he worked on a house being built for Mr Field.
The Field family later paid 5400 tala ($2900) to bring Luck and Henry to Samoa while they waited to hear about an application for a work permit to return to New Zealand.
Dr Ingram said he only knew about his appointment shortly before the media did yesterday, and his instructing solicitors had not yet been appointed so he could not say how he would conduct the inquiry.
"At this stage it's too preliminary. I need to see what the scope of the inquiry is, how it came about, who are the key people involved.
"I will be adopting an investigational approach to the whole thing. I imagine I will go through an interview process."
Dr Ingram has specialised in commercial and civil court cases since he became a barrister in 1983, but lectured before that in administrative law, including conflicts of interest.
Although this is the first inquiry he has conducted, he represented witnesses from the Inland Revenue and Internal Affairs departments in the Winebox inquiry in the 1990s, and had what he described as "a cameo role" in the Erebus inquiry a decade earlier.
On the timing, Dr Ingram said: "October 4 gives no time. Whether that becomes a realistic date or not remains to be seen."
An Auckland builder who went to Samoa with the Thai tiler in March, Keith Williams, said the timeframe was "a joke".
"In order to conduct an inquiry without any prejudice, you need to get Sunan Siriwan to New Zealand as a witness and he needs to be out of the influence of the Field family," he said.
"There are other witnesses that may have to be called, who have remained anonymous, like the interpreter [a Thai woman who interpreted at the meetings Mr Williams and Mr Siriwan had with Mr Field]."
National Party immigration spokesman Tony Ryall said the timeframe was "totally inadequate for a proper investigation, particularly when you consider that Mr Ingram has not yet been properly instructed and that during that eight days he will be required to visit Samoa to interview the tiler".
He said it was unclear whether Mr Ingram would have the power to subpoena witnesses, and noted that he was required only to identify other matters arising during the inquiry, rather than investigate them.
Helen Clark told Mr Field on Tuesday to "take a break" during the inquiry, but said he would keep his jobs of associate minister of justice, Pacific Island affairs, social development and employment at this stage.
Mr Field told the Herald to "get lost" when a reporter and photographer went to his house in Mangere yesterday.
His Mangere electorate office was closed. A sign in the window said it would be closed until Monday because the staff "have come down with a stomach flu".
Terms of reference
1) Investigate and determine the nature of Mr Field's relationship with Sunan Siriwan and his wife, and the extent of any involvement he may have had in applications for work permits for them.
2) Identify whether any conflict of interest existed concerning Mr Field's involvement in this matter.
3) Identify any other matters arising from or during the inquiry as are necessary to provide a complete report.
THAI TOLD HIS CASE WAS 'HOPELESS'
An Auckland immigration consultant told the Herald that he advised Thai tiler and overstayer Sunan Siriwan, before he went to Mr Field, that his case was "hopeless".
He told the man there were no policy provisions under which he could make a successful application to remain in New Zealand.
Tim Spooner, who returned from a visit to Thailand this week, said Mr Field's apparent success in asking Associate Immigration Minister Damien O'Connor to direct that Mr Siriwan should be given a work permit was "just unbelievable".
Mr Siriwan's application for refugee status in New Zealand had been turned down. Although Mr Siriwan was a skilled tiler and his son Henry was born in New Zealand, this had never been enough to get a work permit before.
"If every overstayer who had children born in New Zealand was allowed to stay, then the floodgates would be open to people unlawfully in New Zealand to actively have children born here," Mr Spooner said.
He said Mr Ingram's inquiry "should cover all decisions by the Associate Minister [Mr O'Connor] where Mr Field has had a hand in it".