Phone call that ended job

By Audrey Young

A phone call from Cabinet minister David Benson-Pope's office to the Ministry for the Environment began the train of events that resulted in communications manager Madeleine Setchell being effectively sacked because of her partner's job.

Her partner, Kevin Taylor, is National Party leader John Key's chief press secretary.

Ms Setchell had been in the job for only three days when the minister's office alerted the ministry to her partner's job, something she had declared when she applied for the post.

A report by Deputy State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie yesterday supported Environment Ministry chief executive Hugh Logan's decision to remove her from the communications job.

Mr Rennie justified it because Ms Setchell was working in an area sensitive to the Government.

"Sustainability is one of this Government's defining policy (and political) themes, and it is not surprising that the managers concerned saw sensitivities in roles in this area that involved close work with ministers."

It was not a matter of not trusting Ms Setchell, but Mr Logan had felt there was "a potential for a perception of a conflict of interest".

Mr Rennie's focus was purely on Mr Logan, who said he made the decision independently and that the minister was not involved.

He said the first Mr Logan knew of the relationship was when he received the call from the minister's office.

Mr Rennie did not speak to Mr Benson-Pope, the Minister for the Environment, nor his staff member, political adviser Steve Hurring, who made the phone call.

He does not know whether the call was made at Mr Benson-Pope's instigation and whether the question to the ministry about Ms Setchell's partner was a genuine query or a way of alerting the ministry to the minister's concerns about a known relationship.

The decision is believed to be causing concern throughout the public service.

Mr Benson-Pope's involvement will be the subject of Opposition probing in Parliament next week.

It had previously steered clear of making the matter a political issueat the request of Ms Setchell and Mr Taylor.

Mr Key said yesterday that Mr Benson-Pope's attempts to distance himself from the sacking - saying he had no details - were misleading.

"David Benson-Pope has been dancing on the head of a pin. His honesty is again under scrutiny and [Prime Minister] Helen Clark must say whether she intends to tolerate this new low standard."

Mr Logan offered Madeleine Setchell another job, of reportedly equal status, but she declined and has been given a payout by the ministry in a confidential settlement.

Helen Clark is returning from Indonesia today.

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