An investigation has been launched into North Canterbury Fish and Game Council after five of its own councillors raised financial and transparency concerns and questioned how a dead man's bequeathed $500,000 was being spent.
The concerned group wrote to New Zealand Fish and Game Council bosses to request an immediate forensic financial audit.
North Canterbury Fish and Game general manager Rod Cullinane has voluntarily stood down from his role as chair of the Environment Canterbury (ECan) Performance, Audit and Risk committee while the audit is underway.
Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC has been advising the Wellington-based national body, while Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage has backed the inquiry.
The North Canterbury branch, which oversees a vast geographical area from south of the Rakaia River, north to the Hurunui River, and inland to the Southern Alps, including the Canterbury Plains, Christchurch, and Banks Peninsula, has overspent by $734,580 in the past decade. It has gone over budget nine of the past 10 years, according to financial data obtained by the Herald on Sunday.
The action began with a strongly worded May 16 missive to Lindsay Lyons, chairman of the New Zealand Fish and Game Council, from five councillors: Craig Maylam, Ken Lee, Charles Smith, Alan Strong, and Phil Musson.
Many stakeholders had lost confidence in North Canterbury Fish and Game to best manage their natural resource, the group alleged, and there was potential to bring the national organisation into "disrepute".
They highlighted the decade-long budget over-runs and that "no steps have been taken to address this situation". Fish and Game is funded by the sale of fishing and game hunting licences and receives no Crown money.
The Water and Wildlife Habitat Trust – a separate entity with independent trustees – received interim funding from North Canterbury Fish and Game, the concerned councillors claimed, which was generated from the interest of bequeathed money allegedly gifted solely for the enhancement of specified Canterbury rivers.
"The use of the interest from the bequest given to North Canterbury Fish and Game is considered by stakeholders as inappropriate given the wishes of the benefactor," says the letter, obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act.
"Morally, this money should only be used for the purpose intended by the benefactor."
The Herald on Sunday understands that the bequest, believed to be about $550,000, was gifted to North Canterbury Fish and Game by a keen Christchurch angler who died last year, without any family or children.
At a public meeting at North Canterbury Fish and Game's Christchurch headquarters on August 15, officials were challenged by a disgruntled volunteer who asked: "What have you done with the dead man's money?"
Few pay rises have happened during the budget blowouts, the group alleges, claiming that staff morale appears "very low".
In correspondence seen by the Herald, national chairman Lyons said they were treating the allegations as serious.
North Canterbury Fish and Game Council chairman Trevor Isitt replied to the "numerous unsubstantiated allegations", and asked for the names of the outspoken councillors.
He then sought legal advice; a lawyer's letter states that North Canterbury Fish and Game Council "absolutely and utterly refutes the allegations".
The Office of the Auditor-General was notified before the audit was launched on June 28.
High-powered auditor Bruce Robertson is probing North Canterbury's handling of the bequest, its transparency and general decision-making, and the ongoing operating losses.
Approached this week for comment, both Isitt and Cullinane welcomed the audit but felt it inappropriate to comment while it was ongoing.
"We have fully co-operated with the audit process and all of this will come out in the wash as those findings are released," Isitt told the Herald.
Fish and Game headquarters were tight-lipped this week.
"At this stage, while the process is continuing, Fish and Game will not be saying anything more," a spokesman said.
North Canterbury councillors approached by the Herald declined to comment. It's understood that bosses have told them, and staff members, not to talk to media.
Eugenie Sage said she expected to be kept informed of the audit's outcome.
"It [is] important that regional Fish and Game councils are well-managed, effective, transparent and accountable, including to licence holders, for the use and spending of licence funds," Sage said.