David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Judith Collins picked husband's friend

Justice Minister's office denies any conflict of interest over $200,000 state service appointment

The lawyer hand-picked by Minister of Justice Judith Collins for a top state service job is an old friend of her husband, says a private investigator who used to work for both men.

A former scrutineer in Mrs Collins' former Clevedon electorate, Clinton Bowerman, 49, said the minister knew Robert Kee through her husband David Wong-Tung before appointing him as the new director of human rights proceedings.

"They were great mates," he said of Mr Kee and Mr Wong-Tung.

Mr Bowerman said he had known Mr Kee since St Peter's College in the 1970s. He said Mr Kee introduced him to Mrs Collins' husband David Wong-Tung in the early 1990s.

He said he was surprised to see Mrs Collins publicly distance herself from Mr Kee because he last saw and photographed the pair together with Mr Wong-Tung only a few years ago.

Mrs Collins appointed Mr Kee mid-2012 after personally nominating him for the post. She then chose Mr Kee for the job out of two final candidates against the advice of officials, who had recommended Parliament Office of the Clerk policy manager Catherine Rodgers. She had previously worked as deputy director of human rights proceedings.

Among Ms Rodgers' advocates was Chief Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford. He wrote to Mrs Collins to urge she hire Ms Rodgers for the $200,000 job.

The details were revealed to the Weekend Herald through the Official Information Act. In the initial request in October, Mrs Collins was asked about the relationship between her husband and Mr Kee. She did not respond to the question.

Asked again about her connection to Mr Kee last weekend, her office pointed to her former role as a former president of the Auckland District Law Society and vice-president of the New Zealand Law Society. A spokeswoman said: "Accordingly, Minister Collins and Mr Kee are known to each other. This is not unusual, and does not indicate a conflict of interest. Knowing someone, especially in a relatively small community such as the New Zealand legal community, does not mean a conflict of interest exists."

When the Weekend Herald asked her office again about her husband's friendship with Mr Kee, a spokeswoman refused to answer. She said: "I don't think that's relevant."

She said no conflict of interest declaration was filed by the minister because it was believed there was no conflict.

Mr Wong-Tung refused to discuss his relationship with Mr Kee. "What have I got to do with this? I have got nothing to do with anything. I know lots of lawyers."

The NZ Barristers and Solicitors Directory, compiled by the Auckland Law Society during Mrs Collins' time serving on its council, show Mr Wong-Tung and Mr Kee both working at Administrator House from 1993 to 1995, on separate floors. Mrs Collins has previously confirmed she also worked in the building at the time Mr Kee was there.

Mr Bowerman approached the Weekend Herald saying he met Mr Wong-Tung through Mr Kee when they both worked in the building. "Judith was downstairs. She had the whole floor."

He said he had been friends with Mr Kee since attending St Peter's College together in the 1970s. He began doing work for Mr Kee in the early 1990s, which in turn led to the introduction to Mr Wong-Tung. The work was serving legal notices for the lawyers and client interviews in prison.

"We were all very tight back then. It was simple - a simple way to live. We would socialise Friday nights at DeBrett's."

The relationship continued outside the work environment with Mr Bowerman recalling "birthday parties and functions we would all go to". He and Mr Kee had visited Mrs Collins and Mr Wong-Tung's homes in Remuera.

Mr Bowerman said he acted as a volunteer on Ms Collins' political campaigns and in 2005 acted as a scrutineer for the National Party - a role signed off by the candidate. After that election, he said Mr Wong-Tung organised a lunch at a cafe in her electorate attended by himself, Mrs Collins, Mr Kee and Mr Kee's partner to celebrate her victory.

He said it was a "thank you" for his role as scrutineer. He said he believed Mr Kee also acted as a scrutineer - a detail on which Mrs Collins' office refused to comment.

Mr Bowerman said the last social occasion which brought the three men together was a lunch at the Grasshopper restaurant in 2010 near the Stamford Hotel in Auckland. He said Mr Kee arranged the lunch and organised for Mr Wong-Tung to attend. "It was a catch up."

Mr Bowerman said the lunch went poorly after he took issue with a comment by Mr Wong-Tung about his contact with and work for Libby Black, the estranged wife of National Party president Peter Goodfellow. Ms Black hired him as a private detective during the collapse of the marriage.

The men saw each other again in May 2011 at the more sombre occasion of the funeral of Mr Wong-Tung's mother Flory. Mr Wong-Tung had asked Mr Bowerman to take photographs, including one which captured Mr Kee a few metres from Mrs Collins.

He spoke to Mr Kee after his appointment to the job as director of human rights prosecutions - the enforcement role backing up the Human Rights Commission.

"His attributes would be that he has a strong sense of social justice. He would have a first hand sense of human rights abuses from his family because of the Japanese occupation of China. He has great knowledge of criminal law. He certainly has the intellectual 'oomph' to cope with it."

He said he believed his friend would do a good job but was concerned the lack of public knowledge about his connection to Mrs Collins through her husband would act as an unconscious inhibitor.

Asked why he was speaking, Mr Bowerman said: "I'm doing this to protect Robert. I'll do anything to protect his reputation. It is up to Robert to define his role."

Mr Kee did not respond to calls for comment.

- NZ Herald

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