After his renal problems worsened in 2009, Porirua resident Robin Howarth became a champion for those facing kidney disorders.
Despite spending 10 hours a day hooked up to a dialysis machine, by 2012 he was president and chairman of the Wellington Regional Kidney Society, a long-running charity that owned and operated a holiday home in Taupō to provide respite care to renal patients.
Howarth helped front the campaign for a private members’ bill in Parliament seeking more support for organ donors.
“The way they treat these heroes [it’s] no wonder people don’t donate in this country,” Howarth told the Dominion Post of the need for the law, later passed, in 2015.
But Howarth’s own approach to gaining support was decided unheroic.
Today, the Wellington Regional Kidney Society no longer exists.
That Taupō holiday home was sold in 2016, but the sale proceeds didn’t appear in the charity accounts.
It took Charities Service, police, the Attorney-General and liquidators years to unpick what Howarth had done.
According to Charities Service investigation reports obtained under the Official Information Act, the first hint that Howarth was more selfish than selfless came in a September 2018 email alleging that “an officer of the Society, Robin Howarth, is misappropriating Society funds and using his position to gain personal pecuniary benefit”.
Within a month investigators had found the sale of the Taupō holiday home in 2016 had netted $340,000, but Howarth had used the money to buy a Manawatū house for him to live in - with another $120,000 siphoned out of the charity’s accounts to pay to renovate it.
Three other individuals listed as officers of the charity were allegedly unaware they were apparently serving in such roles.
And all the while Howarth maintained a formal residence at a Kainga Ora address in Wellington where, Charities Services was told, “he is registered for his Winz benefits”.
Charities Services quickly amassed enough evidence of criminal offending to refer the matter to police.
“The police initiated Operation Stone to progress inquiries into the criminal allegations,” Charities Services’ notes read. “The Wellington-based Police Central Asset Recovery Unit were also engaged. It was considered to attempt to recover some of the assets as proceeds of crime.”
But before the wheels of justice could make a full turn, Howarth died in July 2019, curtailing any criminal prosecution and further complicating recovery efforts.
Charities Services was worried that the end of criminal investigations could mean the proceeds of crime were laundered.
“Of concern was that the assets, allegedly acquired unlawfully by the deceased, may be inherited by the deceased’s family,” officials said.
The Herald gave Howarth’s surviving family members the opportunity to comment via an intermediary. It is understood the family only became aware of the investigation and misappropriation after his death.
A rare application was made to the Attorney-General for an order liquidating the society, and in May 2020 John Fisk and Marcus McMillan of PricewaterhouseCoopers were appointed and they flagged notice with Public Trust - the executors of Howarth’s estate - of a likely claim.
Fisk and McMillan’s reports note that when they took over, the charity had no assets and, in the absence of the late president, was rudderless.
“There was concern that there was nobody in place to manage the activities of the trust board, if any,” the liquidators said.
Liquidators also heard concerning claims that the property issues were not the full extent of Howarth’s malfeasance, after lawyers acting for an elderly woman alleged he had transferred “significant” funds to the Kidney Society without her knowledge.
“The liquidators have observed from the records at hand and information provided by the donor’s lawyer that monies were removed by the late president from the donor’s personal bank account and deposited into the trust board’s bank account. These funds were then withdrawn by the late president into his personal bank account via numerous transactions over the subsequent period,” liquidators said.
The liquidators and involuntary donor agreed to a joint claim to Howarth’s estate that paid out only 37c in the dollar. Of $305,067.69 sought by Fisk and McMillan, only $113,954.59 was recovered.
An earlier version of this story published a photo of Tony Howarth incorrectly identified as his brother Robin. The Herald deeply regrets and apologises for this error.