Nicholas Jones

Nicholas Jones is the New Zealand Herald’s education reporter.

PM promises action if kohanga claim proven

Credit card reports trigger probe to check public money is being spent properly.

Lynda Tawhiwhirangi.
Lynda Tawhiwhirangi.

Senior government ministers have ordered an urgent audit into the spending of state money intended to help children learn te reo Maori.

Education Minister Hekia Parata and Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples last night met the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust Board over allegations about the use of credit cards.

In a joint statement afterwards, they announced plans to investigate the board's financial management "as a matter of urgency".

"While we were encouraged by the actions that the trust has taken so far, which it has advised us of [last night], we have informed the trust that the Ministry of Education will be commissioning an independent, specialist audit firm to review the controls the trust has in place to assure itself that public funding is being used appropriately."

The trust would co-operate with the investigation.

Labour's Maori Education spokeswoman Nanaia Mahuta said Ms Parata had no other option than to call for a "please explain" from the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust.

"Given the serious nature of the allegations around the use of Kohanga funds Ms Parata could hardly have done anything less," she said.

"While an internal investigation is underway, the allegations have done significant damage to the trust and confidence of the many people who work to uphold tikanga, teach te reo and support tamariki to grow and thrive."

Last night Newstalk ZB chief political reporter Felix Marwick tweeted that "all credit cards have been cancelled across the national Kohanga Reo organisation".

A Native Affairs investigation into the trust has raised further questions about its financial position, including a document from law firm Chen Palmer showing bills of more than $2.5 million over two years in legal costs on a Waitangi Tribunal claim.

Those legal costs could eventually fall back on the taxpayer - the tribunal's recommendations in the Kohanga Reo claim included the Crown reimbursing the trust for its legal costs.

In September last year, the tribunal ruled that the Government had breached the Treaty of Waitangi by failing to support the kohanga reo movement with appropriate policy and funding decisions.

On Monday night, the Maori Television programme examined credit card spending by board member Dame Iritana and daughter-in-law Lynda Tawhiwhirangi, putting the spotlight on the trust and its commercial arm, Te Pataka Ohanga.

Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi. Photo / APN
Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi. Photo / APN

They are alleged to have used business credit cards to buy dresses, accommodation and gifts. Both have said the spending was justified or genuinely mistaken.

Yesterday Prime Minister John Key said if the allegations were proved, the trust would "have the book thrown at them".

Labour MP Shane Jones said that under the current structure, trustees were elected by each other - a governance arrangement that should be changed.

"The trustees are like papal characters, they are appointed for life. What I hope happens is that the kohanga movement takes back responsibility and control."

Mr Jones said the item of questionable spending that most struck him was a Kardashian Collections bag for a 21st birthday present.

"It just seemed to symbolise the whole thing. They need to be cleaned out for fear of the kohanga reo becoming the Kardashian reo."

Mr Jones said the amount spent on the Tribunal claim was "shocking".

Aside from the two credit cards issued to Ms Tawhiwhirangi and Dame Iritana by Te Pataka Ohanga, the trust has issued six more corporate credit cards to employees.

Ms Tawhiwhirangi could not be reached for comment yesterday. Kohanga Reo National Trust, Te Pataka Ohanga and Dame Iritana did not respond to requests for comment.

Trustee Toni Waho said the board had appointed an external investigator to look into claims.

Funding to the kohanga reo trust totals about $80 million and was monitored by the Ministry of Education and subject to random audits.

Credit card spending
(According to records obtained by Native Affairs)

Lynda Tawhiwhirangi
$820 wedding dress for her daughter
$799 Trelise Cooper dress
$462 on fuel and accommodation while travelling to son's army graduation
$6000-plus at petrol stations over 15 months, despite having a fuel card for her vehicle
$112 Valentino wallet and passport holder as leaving gift for staff member
$100 Kardashian handbag from Hannahs
Shoes for son's girlfriend

Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi
$298 for lamps for home office
11 cash withdrawals for koha of $3400. Five were for her drivers.

- NZ Herald

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