A lawyer who embarked on an "orchestrated campaign" to destroy her former husband's professional career, cause him distress and gain advantage in a property dispute could be struck off after being found guilty of misconduct.
Jeanne Denham breached professional standards and "tarnished the reputation of the profession" through an abuse of court process, a just-released Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal decision has found.
The decision sets out the lengths she went to damage her former spouse, then Kristin School principal Peter Clague. It reveals private emails and texts detailing a secret media strategy against him labelled akin to "waging a personal vendetta".
The decision is now under appeal, with Denham's lawyer Warren Pyke warning that the events were highly personal and emotional, involving "flawed human beings" going through an intimate relationship breakup.
Denham took a private prosecution against Clague after police declined to lay charges over an alleged assault at the couple's Greenhithe home in 2010.
The case was eventually thrown out by a judge as an abuse of process designed to inflict maximum damage on Clague and Kristin School, and to help Denham gain the upper hand in a property claim against Clague.
She was ordered to pay nearly $146,000 in costs, which remains outstanding after Denham declared herself bankrupt.
The Herald can now reveal that Denham was later referred to the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal on a charge of misconduct. The matter went to a hearing earlier this year.
Evidence included a trove of emails and text messages between Denham and PR merchant Carrick Graham, who helped organise damaging, paid posts about Clague and Kristin School on the Whale Oil attack blog.
In an email exchange in November 2012, Graham wrote that the campaign had already generated media coverage, forcing the school board to issue two letters to parents.
"It would be safe to say that Clague has had the blow-torch applied to him in terms of a much wider audience being aware of his actions. In terms of reputational hits he is damaged goods."
In another exchange after a Whale Oil post alleging Kristin board members had known about the allegations and done nothing, Denham wrote that "Cameron's blog is starting to generate interest in the Kristin community. It'll spread like wildfire now!"
Graham responded: "Excellent. We'll talk more tomorrow about what else we can run on there!"
Following a later blog post that referenced the anti-domestic violence slogan, "It's Not OK", Denham texted Graham: "Great stuff Carrick - that should give them all a busy weekend!
"Made me laugh out loud."
Later that day Denham disclosed Clague's salary details to Graham in a text message, knowing this would later appear on the Whale Oil site, the decision states.
"I think Peter will lose a lot of support when people find that out," she wrote. "The Kristin parents will be furious."
After a Herald on Sunday article titled "Break up turns nasty as police called in", Denham texted Graham: "On the upside, though, it seems he must now be stood down."
Denham initiated her private prosecution in March 2014 after police decided to issue Clague with only a warning.
The media campaign was then revived.
The tribunal ruled that Denham deliberately undermined her former husband's chance to seek name suppression by leaking details about her legal action to media.
Throwing out Denham's case, Judge David McNaughton ruled: "I am satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that this private prosecution has been brought for an ulterior motive by the complainant, that is primarily to destroy [Clague's] career and reputation and collaterally to damage Kristin School and at the same time to obtain an advantage in pressing the relationship claim.
"Furthermore ... she knowingly and actively sought to subvert the operation of suppression orders with the assistance of Mr Graham and Cameron Slater and that in itself constitutes a serious abuse of process."
The tribunal also heard that in May 2012, Denham had texted Clague saying: "I think you will really regret that move," after he suggested their dispute be dealt with by lawyers.
She also wrote: "I think you really haven't thought through what you are doing and what the costs and consequences will be."
The tribunal ruled these "threatening inferences ... were borne out by her subsequent actions in a targeted public relations strategy and media campaign which were linked to her complaint to the police".
In an email to her legal counsel in November 2012, Denham said going to the media was risky but necessary to "counter the character assassination".
"I did not make the complaint to coerce him into settling; I made it so that he could face justice."
But in the same email she discussed her husband being fearful of facing her.
"Hey, let's leverage off that fear and try and get a negotiated settlement instead.
"We are or will be soon in a position to call the shots."
The tribunal ruled that Denham had used legal processes for "improper purposes".
She had lacked credibility during more than a day in the witness box, the decision said. Denham was "at times evasive ... particularly when faced with very plain emails and text messages which had been written by her".
She had fallen well short of industry standards, and her behaviour - which lasted three years - "cannot be categorised as a 'brief rush of blood to the head'."
Denham is now awaiting penalty.
Pyke said his client, who is not currently practising, had appealed the decision to the High Court.
The case did not involve any failings by her in the provision of professional services, with much of the events in question occurring before she was a practising lawyer.
"Sensationalised coverage of this matter would only serve prurient interest."