Adam Bennett

Adam is a political reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

MFAT leak: 'Person Z' hits back

Paula Rebstock has released her report into MFAT leak.  Photo / NZPA
Paula Rebstock has released her report into MFAT leak. Photo / NZPA

Deputy-Secretary at the Ministry of Justice Nigel Fyfe has outed himself as one of two former top MFAT managers fingered by a long running leak investigation as attempting to disrupt a restructuring at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The other, who the Herald understands is Derek Leask the former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom has hit back over the allegations about him saying they are defamatory and that he has made a complaint with the Privacy Commissioner.

A report on the investigation released today finds a former Labour Party staffer working at the State Services Commission and some MFAT staff were probably responsible for the leaks although it found no definitive evidence.

The report ordered by State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie and conducted by Paula Rebstock also found the behaviour of some managers at MFAT during the restructuring "fell below the standards expected of people in their position", by creating a perception within the department that it was acceptable to air their opposition to the changes publicly an allow it to be used for "political purposes".

Two of those staff "developed strategies to oppose the change proposals, and to disrupt or stop the change process outside of the staff-in-confidence consultation process".

The pair were named in the report as "Person Y" and "Person Z".

Prominent QC Hugh Rennie this afternoon confirmed Person Y is Mr Fyfe. The Herald understands Person Z is Mr Leask who is now retired.

Hugh Rennie said he was acting for Mr Fyfe and had been asked by him to clarify what Iain Rennie had said about him, his legal representation, and his involvement in the Rebstock lnquiry.

Despite the report's use of the term "Person Y" the report contained "extensive information which identifies him.".

"The plain intention of the State Services Commission is to identify him by indirect means. He is disclosing his name to avoid any unfair effect on past and present MFAT staff."

Under the name Person Z Mr Leask also issued a statement this afternoon.

He said that the Investigation's findings about his actions and those of other senior MFAT managers had little or nothing to do with the leaking of documents.

"They were no more than the Investigation's views or interpretations about MFAT management practice. My own views and interpretations are very different. I simply do not accept the validity of the findings against me and some of my former colleagues. And neither will many others with long and deep involvement in MFAT and elsewhere in the Public Service."

He said: "My approach throughout the change process was to get significant improvements to the outcome and I worked with colleagues to achieve this. The MFAT Secretary acknowledged that the robust debate had helped to achieve this. And I wasn't the only person concerned by the change proposals - the PM and Foreign Minister also expressed concerns."

Emails published in the report were "private communications between colleagues- like water-cooler conversations in an office - except we were in different parts of the world."

He said the investigation that misunderstood the MFAT change process. "Challenging the senior management is not undermining it - it is part of the process. Our concerns were underpinned by loyalty to MFAT and NZ's interests."

He was surprised and disappointed by Iain Rennie's decision to publish the section about him and other senior MFAT managers.

"My Counsel had given him what we saw as ample evidence that important corrections were required to the Final Report given to him by the Investigation." My Counsel has lodged a formal complaint with the Privacy Commission.

"We pointed out for example that Finding D implied that I had not maintained political neutrality". I argued that this was not accurate and that the finding should be deleted. As someone who was a serious public servant for over 40 years I find the publication of this finding insulting and I believe it is defamatory."

Meanwhile, Iain Rennie today confirmed the person "strongly suspected" of the leak of Cabinet papers to Labour foreign affairs spokesman Phil Goff was a former Labour Party researcher employed on a short term contract.

The report also found the commission failed to guard against the risks posed by having a former political staffer handle sensitive documents.

The 18 month $510,000 investigation by Ms Rebstock was "unable to find definitive evidence of who was responsible for the unauthorised disclosure of the Cabinet Papers".

However, Ms Rebstock reported "a strong suspicion" that the leak of the Cabinet Papers was made by a temporary staff member working at the commission.

"I am extremely saddened and disappointed by this", Mr Rennie told reporters today.

That person identified by Ms Rebstock and referred to in her report as "Person X" took legal action in a bid to prevent her suspicions from being reported to Mr Rennie and a High Court suppression order still prevents him from being identified.

The person had previously worked in the Labour Party research unit, Mr Rennie said.

Ms Rebstock's report found the commission assigned the person to handle sensitive government documents "without mitigating possible risks due to the person's: prior work for a political party; likely lack of experience of following Cabinet guidelines for handling Cabinet papers; and dual role working the secure area of the Commissioner's Office and in the more public area of SSC."

While the hiring of people who'd previously worked for political parties was not problematic, "it is the department's responsibility to induct, train, and provide oversight to mitigate any risk".

Foreign Minister Murray McCully said the report suggested a number of officials were placed under pressure from Mr Goff to release information that they were not entitled to disclose.

"It also records that a former researcher from the Parliamentary offices of the Labour Party found employment at the State Services Commission, had possession of the leaked Cabinet papers and was unable to satisfactorily explain the scanning of documents that exactly matched the size of the two papers. I believe the public can draw their own conclusions both as to the actions of this individual and the role played by Mr Goff.''

But Mr Goff told the Herald he did not know the identity, background or even gender of the person who supplied the Cabinet Papers. He freely acknowledged ringing MFAT staff for information about the restructuring but said as the Opposition foreign affairs spokesman, he had no power to pressure them.

He described the leakers fingered by Ms Rebstock as "whistleblowers" who had acted in the public interest to reveal the restructuring that harmed New Zealand's diplomatic service.

"We lost some of the most skilled and experienced diplomats who had served successive governments loyally and professionally," he said.

"The inquiry should have been into how the Government managed to get the restructuring so wrong. Even Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully was forced to admit the job had been botched and blamed chief executive John Allen."

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a1 at 02 Sep 2014 16:48:55 Processing Time: 481ms