John Weekes

John Weekes is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Luigi Wewege: 'I was very politically naive'

EXCLUSIVE: For two weeks, he was the most wanted man in New Zealand. This week, Luigi Wewege sat down for one tell-all interview with the Herald on Sunday about his part in Mayor Len Brown's undoing, and who knew what. Then he sold his car, packed his bags, boarded a plane and left New Zealand.

Luigi Wewege has escaped overseas with no immediate plans to return. Photo / Doug Sherring
Luigi Wewege has escaped overseas with no immediate plans to return. Photo / Doug Sherring

It is dimly-lit, silent. Luigi Wewege can relax. Finally.

He has seen better days. He's essentially in hiding. "Essentially" is a word you'll hear him use often.

At 28, he's a national phenomenon - on both sides of the political spectrum. To some, this young man is a wrecking ball who plumbed the depths of political sleaze. To others, he seems the fall guy in a loathsome spectacle, a half-baked smear campaign that attracted hangers-on and opportunists like flies to carrion.

So what's Wewege's position in all this? "Essentially all I did was pass on information that came to me," he says. "It's turned into such a mess."

But if his detractors expect him to look down and out, think again. It is a pleasantly sunny afternoon and Wewege is dapper in a dark suit, check shirt, black shoes - and an elegant black umbrella. He does not look like a man defeated.

In the pub not far from his Parnell apartment, Wewege says he can thank his friends, including some very far away, for supporting him through the battle zone.

"Look, I've got friends as far as DC that even know about this," Wewege says. "They are quite appalled as to the fact this has been deflected on to me. And not to the mayor."

Reflecting on Len Brown's continued hold on the mayoralty, he says he is still bewildered. "You look at someone like Bill Clinton. That was essentially a blow-job under the desk. This is a two-year, non-stop relationship, so it's much different."

Wewege says he had no idea of the intimate sexual detail Bevan Chuang supplied in an affidavit released last week. Wewege will criticise his friend and former boss John Palino but the line of answers he supplies stay mostly as straight as the crease on his trousers.

"All I ever knew was that the mayor made propositions towards her. I never knew the extent. I never knew there were any sexual relations between the two of them."

Wewege says he ran into Chuang at a mayoral interview for John Palino at a TV station a few months ago. He hadn't seen Chuang for a while, he says, and she told him she had been propositioned by Len Brown. He says these claims - that Brown hit on Chuang in the Ngati Whatua room and had been exchanging texts with her - were enough to spark his concerns.

With the mayoral campaigns underway, Wewege's motives appear purely opportunistic. "Obviously, as any politically-oriented person would do, you realise at the time this could essentially change the game."

Ask Wewege how much John Palino and his team knew and he becomes coy. "I don't necessarily want to go into who knew what and at what time because at the end of the day, I've essentially passed on information and had the country's whole attention."

Come again? "I don't want to go into it. What I will categorically say is that John Palino simply did not know the revelations of what was in the affidavit. I certainly don't think he knew that there was any form of sexual relations between Bevan and [Len]."

Says Wewege: "I realised it was of importance and passed it on to people I thought, or the person I thought would know what to do."

He approached blogger Cameron Slater with his concerns.

"Obviously he's from the right and I thought he would potentially know what to do with that type of stuff."

Wewege says "it was so long ago" he cannot even remember what day he contacted Slater.

"At the time I didn't think anything of it. I was very politically naive in that sense. When you're short-staffed on a campaign and working 24/7, one tends not to go into details as to how this'll play out."

Wewege does not believe Palino's campaign manager John Slater, Cameron's father, knew the lurid details of the affairs. Wewege says he never mentioned the Chuang strategy to John Slater because he had already gone to his son, Cameron.

"I'm sure he [John Slater] knew there had been incidents during Len's time in office.

"I think he possibly knew, but he didn't know the extent. I categorically say John wouldn't have known about the revelations. Christ, I didn't even know."

In the Palino camp various, vague scenarios were discussed but no concrete strategy formed around the Chuang allegations, he says. "I don't think we really knew what was going on. There was talk of a byelection or something. There was all types of stuff swirling around. I even heard that John would become mayor."

Time passes. Palino loses the election and the faithful gather at Wildfire restaurant on Auckland's Viaduct. Speeches, hob-nobbing, commiserations. Wewege is there, shadowing Palino as he talks to reporters.

Later, Wewege says, Chuang appears. "She pitched up at Wildfire late that Saturday night and I didn't want anything to do with her."

In a startling claim, Wewege says Chuang blamed the mayor for her own loss in the Albert-Eden Local Board-Maungawhau Subdivision elections. "She felt that he [Brown] somehow orchestrated her not getting a seat. All I wanted to do was just essentially go home. I was certainly of the mind that we had tried to get information from her but in my mind it was game over, really."

Wewege leaves the restaurant, he says, ready to start anew. The campaign team disperses as the weekend wraps up.

"Essentially, post-election, I had nothing to do with it at all. I was transitioning into the next phase of my life."

But Chuang is sparked into action, after anonymous threatening text messages and her own electoral defeat.

Wewege denies sending the messages, saying it would have been pointless for him to do so, and he had for days accepted Palino would never be mayor. "To be honest, mate," he says, "it didn't come from my side. It couldn't have, because, as I said when we didn't get anything from her, I thought it was pretty much over. I made peace with the fact."

He adds: "I was quite realistic that I didn't think we were going to get across the line."

Chuang meets Palino in a Mission Bay carpark on the Sunday night. They sit and talk in his car for 90 minutes. She says they agreed to suggest Brown stand down, blaming ill health. Palino denies this. The following day she meets freelance journalist Stephen Cook in Grey Lynn McDonald's, and over two hours reveals the most tawdry details of her affair with the Mayor.

The revelations emerge on the Tuesday after the election, published on the Whale Oil blog. "I don't think it was necessary to go into that much detail," Wewege says.

Nearly everyone says that now, of course, but the details were voraciously consumed when posted online.

Wewege claims he cannot bring himself to read the entire affidavit. He says what was written "was certainly not what he knew".

The Chuang affidavit will haunt Len Brown forever, but the moment of maximum political impact has passed. Brown quickly appears on TV, somewhat ill-fitting suit, no tie and, unlike Wewege, almost dishevelled. The strategy is clear: Front up, don't appear too flash or cocky, voice respect for one's family, don't dignify the lurid details with comment.

"A very, very strong majority of people, nearly half of the people who voted, said they wanted me as Mayor," Brown tells Campbell Live. Were ratepayer resources spent on the affair? "If there is a reflection, it is during my time, during the day, or at night," he says, "so, but no council resources specifically, no."

It seems a new type of language is evolving. "I neither agree nor disagree with what has been alleged by the other party," Brown says. "People will judge me in the whole. And I make my judgments in the whole."

The details are lost in the gesture. The revelations soon backfire on Palino and Wewege.

Wewege still has sporadic contact with Chuang. "Tuesday night she said she was scared and got a new number," he says.

Chuang breaks free of Cook and blogger Cameron Slater. On Thursday morning in the Herald, the country reads Facebook messages between Chuang and Wewege. They are cringe-inducing. They start six weeks before election night. They suggest the two are lovers, with Wewege pressuring Chuang to discredit the mayor.

Wewege insists he was not Chuang's boyfriend. "Relationship can mean different things," Wewege explains. "She is quite flirty in nature and we always have flirted like that."

If there was any love, it seems long gone. When Chuang unloaded their private messages, Wewege was "disappointed". He says he knew from that moment he would be vilified. "I instinctively knew she had a bad rap. This would be gold for her, to be the victim."

Wewege had made enemies long before the chaos erupted. He says some National Party elements resented his ambitious demeanour. "I only arrived here with a bag of clothes in 2011 and had to make it happen." (He had studied in Trieste, Italy, and before that in the United States.)

His ability to be seen with the party elite annoys his rivals, he believes. "The executive [of the Young Nats] was questioning how an immigrant could get so far and be sitting at certain tables and interacting at the level I was."

Enemies multiplied after the scandal. The public already had enough time and information to form opinions on Brown, Chuang, the Slaters, Cook. But who was Luigi Wewege? When he didn't answer, and Palino kept silent, people drew their own conclusions. Many detested what they saw.

"I certainly didn't expect Dr Bryce Edwards to say I'm public enemy number one. To get that email in your inbox was quite interesting."

The accusations of pressuring Chuang, of suggesting a smear campaign, were bad enough. A cascade of contempt followed when a 2011 CV he wrote was leaked to the Herald on Sunday. Questions were raised about claims in that resume. To his disbelief, Wewege's CV became a Twitter phenomenon later that night. Some of the cruellest barbs came from members or affiliates of the Young Nats.

Wewege is adamant the CV was credible. He was astonished the newspaper called the African National Congress to check a claim he had established a township initiative in impoverished KwaMashu, outside Durban.

"People don't understand that I have research co-authored that's gone before Congress. Obviously in a New Zealand context I didn't quite understand the tall-poppy nature of the place."

Wewege says the leaked CV was later watered down and is now "remarkably different".

Wewege is critical of Palino's trip to Melbourne the week of the revelations but says the New Jersey-born restaurateur is a good friend.

"I don't think he appreciates how bad it is at the moment. Obviously being disconnected and sitting in Australia you are quite removed from what is going on.

"I've said to him, I think for his sake, you can't just fully disappear in a crisis. You've got to front to a certain degree."

That may seem like jaw-dropping hypocrisy, as Wewege packs his bags to fly out of the country, but Wewege insists he was already moving on - and besides, he never put his own hand up for the mayoral chains, the keys to the Ngati Whatua room.

Wewege is also nonplussed over Palino's late-night meeting with Chuang in the Mission Bay carpark the night after the election. "I'm not sure why he thought it would be a good idea."

He retains his humour. "I joked to him last night and said you should start a restaurant called Luigi's."

Wewege is energised, defiant, when asking if the whole charade was worth it. He admits to having gained "nothing" but insists Brown's indiscretions had to be made public. He is also proud to have worked with Palino, who made a bid when no established National Party figures would.

"It's one of the most important cities in Australasia. You can't run unopposed. I really respected John for putting up his hand and saying: We have to ask questions."

"On the other hand, you look back and this has just turned into an absolute mess. It's embroiled the whole country, it seems, every day it seems to widen. It's quite incredible. I was sitting watching the news with friends, and to see yourself on the 6pm news, it was just bizarre. I mean, as I said before, I was just passing on information, for God's sake."

As for his own future, he smiles when his various skills and academic background are raised.

"It's time for that reading a book on a beach somewhere kind of thing. I haven't even really played golf since I left the States and I went there on a golf scholarship. That was 4 years ago."

Wewege says the campaign changed his views of local politics. "For instance, you go to debate in an area and local constituents want you to give a comment on the water pipes underneath your house kind of thing.

"The emails we would get - somebody would say a tree is obscuring their view of Rangitoto Island. I'm just not sure if it's for me."

Central government, he says, is more his kind of thing. Watch out Washington DC.

Thursday night. Twenty-seven hours after meeting in the bar, Luigi has a surprise. He is at the airport, he says. Off to see friends, in an undisclosed location. Rumours will swirl. Correspondents with flexible ethics and conniving political operatives will continue flocking like vultures to the carcass of his New Zealand career.

"I'm pretty fortunate in that I didn't have too many things. I managed to get my car sold and pretty much packed up. Off I go."

Soon, many will have theories of where he went, who paid for his ticket, where he will stay. For now, Luigi Wewege is clear on how he wishes to be remembered here. "I'm hoping that people start to realise ... all this guy did was just get information and pass it on."

He arrived in New Zealand with little more than a bag of clothes. He leaves with much the same.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a5 at 23 Aug 2014 16:40:59 Processing Time: 560ms