A keen fisherman left $500,000 to Fish & Game in his will for restocking rivers with salmon - but they ignored his wishes and used it for, among other things, fixing their head office.
A Fish & Game regional council took legal advice to ignore the last wishes of the keen angler, a leaked report shows.
An investigation into North Canterbury Fish & Game Council was launched earlier this year after five of its own councillors raised financial and transparency concerns and questioned how a generous bequest was being spent.
A draft review of the audit's findings, leaked to the Herald on Sunday, also calls for the appointment of an independent chair to guide the troubled council through its difficulties.
The report reveals that passionate Christchurch fisherman James Walter McIntyre left more than $500,000 to North Canterbury Fish & Game in his will.
The conditions of the bequest, seen by the Herald on Sunday, stated: "I gift – my residuary estate to Fish & Game NZ North Canterbury. Without imposing any trust, I request that a member of the NZ Salmon Angler's Association be present when Fish & Game NZ make any decision on using the benefit received under this will and that the benefit received be used to restock the Waimakariri and Rakaia rivers with salmon."
On March 7, 2017, the North Canterbury group received $500,000 and, on June 26, the "balance of the bequest", a further $23,935.24.
After taking "high-level legal advice" in August last year, North Canterbury Fish & Game Council chairman Trevor Isitt advised that they were "not bound by the estate wishes", the draft audit report states.
In March this year, $49,500 was used for improvements to the regional council's Johns Rd head office in Christchurch.
The following month, interest on the money totalling $16,875 in two payments, was made to the Water and Wildlife Habitat Trust - a separate entity with independent trustees but which receives funding from North Canterbury Fish & Game.
Councillors slammed the move, saying it was "morally cutting across Mr McIntyre's wishes", though the auditor noted that McIntyre left the money's use legally open by including the phrase "without imposing any trust" in his will.
At a public meeting on August 15, officials were challenged by a disgruntled volunteer who asked: "What have you done with the dead man's money?"
New Zealand Salmon Anglers Association spokesman Paul Hodgson was shocked to learn that some of McIntyre's money had been spent without his group's consultation.
"They quite clearly haven't honoured the intent behind the money that was gifted," Hodgson told the Herald today.
He said it was "unacceptable" and questioned why North Canterbury Fish & Game is "operating under a veil of secrecy".
The polls are currently open in Fish & Game's elections to select councillors to represent the interests of licence holders, anglers and hunters, in each of the organisation's 12 regions around the country.
Hodgson said the issues raised in the audit needs to be made public so "then people can make their own decisions when they vote".
Interviews with North Canterbury staff carried out by high-powered independent auditor Bruce Robertson found there are "clearly 'sides' or divisions among council members" and that the quality of any working relationship is "low".
At the centre of the breakdown are two polarising key issues: the place and funding of a youth programme, especially the 'Fish in Schools' programme, conducted through the Water and Wildlife Habitat Trust; and the ongoing operation of the North Canterbury Fish & Game Council hatcheries and their role, cost, and efficacy in maintaining sports fish stocks.
There's also major concerns over finance and budget losses, with the auditor highlighting negative cash flows from operations over the last two years of $93,832 and $159,529 respectively.
And in the last two completed years, the auditor noted a "disturbing trend" where the budget surplus combined was $163,238 while the actual result was a $428,085 loss.
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.
The review concludes that North Canterbury Fish & Game needs to "reset its direction" through the adoption of a new strategic vision.
Although NCFGC is small, with an annual turnover of only about $1.85 million, its accounting processes "lack simplicity, efficiency and transparency", the auditor concluded.
"It would be wise to consider the value of the council being enabled to appoint an independent chair to work with NCFGC through this process. This would be for the benefit of both councillors and staff," the auditor said.
Affected parties have a chance to respond to the draft document before the auditor releases his final report.
Fish & Game New Zealand says it is "carefully considering" the draft results of the "thorough" audit report and will ensure any improvements required are implemented.
"As a statutory organisation, Fish & Game prides itself on its governance and takes its obligations to its licence holders seriously," chief executive Martin Taylor said.
"If there are any areas where a regional council needs to improve, we will work with them to ensure that they are at the high standard we require."
Taylor said the North Canterbury council deserves time to consider the report and once the Wellington-based national body has their response, they can "start providing any help necessary to make sure North Canterbury's game bird hunters and anglers are getting the very best service possible from Fish and Game".
Three separate investigations are under way into New Zealand Fish & Game regional councils.
Hawke's Bay Fish & Game and Central South Island (CSI) Fish & Game are also being audited.
Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage says she expects to be kept updated on the outcomes of the investigations.
"Good governance is crucial in ensuring public entities carry out their duties in the best interests of the people they represent," she said.
"It is important that licence holders and the public can be confident in the governance of Fish and Game at regional and national level."