PM threatens to sue over 'Paintergate'

By AUDREY YOUNG, political reporter

Helen Clark turned to lawyers yesterday to try to stop the media from reporting a blistering attack by Opposition leader Bill English on the "Paintergate" affair.

Mr English accused the Prime Minister of "slippery deceit" and acting with "disgrace", alleging that she had not told police all she knew in her written statement.

Helen Clark obtained advice from her lawyer, Hugh Rennie, QC, that Mr English's attack at the National Party conference in Wellington was false and defamatory.

Her press secretary, David Lewis, was asked to warn news media that she had received the advice and could act against them if Mr English's comments were published.

The National Party leader had accused her of failing to tell the police that her Auckland staff member Joan Caulfield, who acquired the painting central to the art forgery inquiry, had sought her advice on what to do with it.

Mrs Caulfield, the former wife of Deputy Prime Minister Jim Anderton, said she was given no advice by the Prime Minister and that she destroyed the painting on her own initiative.

The police report pointedly refers to the fact that Helen Clark made no comment on that in her statement to them.

But Mr English said avoiding the truth was the same as lying.

"So when are we going to see Helen Clark cracking down on crime? I say start with her own staff and her own way of doing business."

In response, Helen Clark described the attack as "an outrageous outburst by a desperate man whose party is in freefall. It is simply gutter politics and I find it absolutely contemptible".

On the Sunday television programme last night she said she had not known the painting had been destroyed and she regretted it had happened. The destruction had occurred before it was known a police inquiry was under way.

Had that been known, she was certain it would not have been destroyed.

Mr English made his attack at the National Party's annual conference yesterday, making full use of the inquiry into Helen Clark's signing other people's artwork to be sold for charities.

The painting at the centre of the inquiry was commissioned by a staff member for a charity auction in 1999, where it sold for $1000.

The police found there was a clear case of forgery to answer but decided it was not in the public interest to prosecute.

Mr English's response to the police conclusion was temperate on Friday. But yesterday he said that now that he had read the report he was "shocked".

"A staff member of Helen Clark walks into her office to get advice about what to do with the painting of which we've heard so much, gets the advice. The painting is subsequently destroyed."

Not long after that, Helen Clark had made a statement to the police.

"She didn't mention it. On page 5, the police report said: 'Miss Clark has not commented on this matter in her statement to the police'."

Mr English said a person of integrity would have said to the staff member seeking advice: "Look there's a possibility of an investigation here. I want this all cleared up. Don't destroy the painting."

Mr English: "This is someone who has set higher standards of public behaviour - just left out the truth.

"The master tactician, the most intelligent leader we've ever had - it just slipped her mind. That's a disgrace.

"I say it's lying to the police - to avoid and refuse to tell the truth is a lie. That's leadership, apparently."

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