A senior Tainui figure who worked alongside the now-disgraced right-hand-man to the Māori King says the episode has done "huge damage" to the kīngitanga movement and "betrayed" tens of thousands of tribal members.
Rangi Whakaruru pleaded guilty this morning to six charges of obtaining by deception and lying to authorities, over his conduct while senior private secretary to Māori King Tūheitia.
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The conviction, and prior investigations by both the Charities Service and the Serious Fraud Office, were spurred by a long-running Herald investigation into misspending at the office of the King.
Whakaruru's admitted offending included misusing the King's chequebook and arranging the manufacture of false invoices for personal gain - including getting Waikato-Tainui's chief executive to sign off and pay for his $27,000 tummy-tuck operation by claiming the procedure was actually performed on King Tūheitia.
Tukoroirangi Morgan, who travelled from Hamilton this morning to be in court to see the guilty plea and Serious Fraud Office prosecutor Todd Simmonds' 30 minutes reading of an itemised summary of Whakaruru's years of lies, misappropriation and manufacture of false invoices, said the hearing left him feeling "pretty raw".
"To see Rangi, and that kind of detail around his manipulation and his fraudulent behaviour that was so carefully planned and done, under all of our noses. To me, that's the most despairing thing about all this," he said.
"This has done huge damage to the credibility of the kīngitanga movement. [Whakaruru] was seen as the face of the King ... He was the frontman for the King."
Morgan served as the King's senior spokesperson alongside Whakaruru, and was also the King's representative to Tainui's Parliament and the tribal executive - bodies the court heard the King's former senior adviser had repeatedly lied to in order to fraudulently obtain money.
"He was a smooth operator, let me be clear, he hoodwinked a lot of people. He betrayed a lot of people. The issue I have now is all of us who were in the inner sanctum, and indeed the tribal executive and parliament, we had no idea as to the scale of what he was doing."
Morgan said Tainui had worked hard to manage their treaty settlement professionally, but this episode would raise obvious questions of competence at the top of the tribe.
"The tribe is a $1.4b corporate business. We should know what we're doing. We should have some level of faith and trust in our systems and processes. How can this fraud be possible?"
The office of the Māori King has gone through considerable ructions in recent years. Registered charity Ururangi Trust was set up in 2008, funded wholly by Tainui, with its annual expenses rapidly increasing from $740,000 in 2009 to nearly $2 million in 2017.
In 2015 it faced adverse scrutiny after an investigation by the Charities Service found gross mismanagement in its spending and placed the organisation on a final warning.
Following Herald reporting, a second Charities Service investigation began in 2017, but as that probe neared completion Tainui abruptly deregistered the charity in mid-2018. That ended that investigation prematurely, prompting Internal Affairs to refer the matter to the Serious Fraud Office who concluded their own digging with the laying of criminal charges against Whakaruru.
Morgan said the near-decade of mismanagement and scandal had only one solution. "Turn off the funding tap to the kīngitanga, and only pay an annual salary [to the King] and this sort of nonsense will never happen again," he said.
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