Fran O'Sullivan: Scandal still hanging over Brown

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Investigation must ask hotels to check whether mayor did indeed pay personally for rooms used during affair.

Len Brown can't yet draw a line under his controversial affair. Photo / Richard Robinson
Len Brown can't yet draw a line under his controversial affair. Photo / Richard Robinson

Auckland Mayor Len Brown made a reasonable fist of fronting up to key Auckland businesspeople yesterday at the Herald's annual Project Auckland luncheon.

Brown's address in the main focused on results of the latest Auckland Scorecard released in the Project Auckland report yesterday.

But interestingly, the mayor's prepared speech notes contained this little gem: "If you get to the stage where there is nothing that you can do better, it is time to step aside and give someone else a go. We are a long way away from that state."

Those words weren't spoken. Brown - whose political instincts would have alerted him to the obvious risk of raised eyebrows if he had said that - had scribbled them out.

The mayor instead broke the ice over the elephant in the room - his controversial dalliance with failed politician Bevan Chuang - with a mild throwaway line.

But there is a way to go yet before Brown can draw a line under the scandal which has marred the beginning of his second term as mayor of New Zealand's most powerful city and move on.

On October 21, Auckland Council chief executive Doug McKay said he had asked EY (previously Ernst & Young ) to inquire into:

•Any use of council resources within the Office of the Mayor, in respect of the mayor's relationship with Chuang, that contravened council policies (for example payments and procurement).

•Any improper preferential treatment in relation to Chuang's engagement as an employee, contractor or an adviser within the Auckland Council Group.

•Any other issues that the reviewers or chief executive consider relate to, or arise out of, the above matters.

The EY team was to review relevant documentation held by the Office of the Mayor and within the Auckland Council group and report back within no more than four calendar weeks. That deadline expires at the end of this week.

Brown has said he believes the EY report will show he didn't pay for any hotels used in his affair with Chuang out of the public purse.

He has also downplayed the extent of his own influence in providing Chuang with a job reference for an art gallery role.

Chuang lost her job at the art gallery when her employers later discovered she had failed to declare a conviction for accessing the emails of a former Auckland War Memorial Museum director for whom she had previously worked.

Arguably, the art gallery did not go very far at all with its reference checks and failed to do basic due diligence. How much of that was due to its own incompetence, or whether it was beguiled by the mayor's reference?

What is of greater interest is whether Chuang was correct in alleging that the SkyCity hotel and other hotels such as the Pullman and Hilton where their trysts took place did not charge Brown for using their rooms.

The terms of reference for the EY inquiry do not directly cover this.

But this is fundamentally just as important - if not more so - than the question of whether the mayor accessed council funds.

If EY is to do its report adequately it should also be asking SkyCity, the Pullman and the Hilton to inspect their books to assure themselves, and McKay, that the mayor did indeed personally pay for his rooms and not take freebies as Chuang has alleged. This is important for two reasons.

First, because undeclared freebies leave any politician open to the suggestion, fair or unfair, by opponents that they have been bought.

Second, because of the potential for unconscious bias.

Full disclosure will be necessary to restore confidence.

It's worth recalling that SkyCity got behind the campaigns of the two main contenders for the Auckland mayoralty in 2010 - John Banks and Len Brown - donating $15,000 to each one.

Brown later stated he supported the "pokies for convention centre deal" between the Government and SkyCity because it would create jobs. But independent rightwing councillor Cameron Brewer noted the mayor had previously been the poster boy for the Problem Gambling Foundation.

Yesterday Brown revealed he had asked Michael Barnett to chair the council's 31-strong business advisory group.

In his first term as mayor, he delegated that role to Brewer. But the mayor and Brewer fell out after the latter initially refused to meet him when the Chuang affair became public.

Yesterday Brown confirmed that Barnett was in charge and that Brewer would merely be the "liaison" for the council.

There is a lot of work to do to increase Auckland's economic growth to the level needed to ensure higher wages and salaries so more Aucklanders can afford to live well in this costly city.

The mayor outlined an ambitious agenda yesterday.

It is important that all facts are disclosed if the inquiry is to draw a line under recent events and not raise even more questions so that Brown can indeed "get down to business".

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

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