Greater Christchurch Regeneration Minister Megan Woods is seeking a "please explain" from government insurer Southern Response after it paid a private investigation firm more than $2000 to review information before it went to the Labour Party.
In January 2017, when Woods was the opposition spokeswoman on the Christchurch quake recovery, Thompson & Clark Investigations Ltd (TCIL) invoiced Southern Response $2070 for reviewing a response to an Official Information Act request from the Labour Party research unit on its use of TCIL.
Asked about whether it was appropriate for Southern Response to pay TCIL to review an OIA response, Woods told the Herald: "That doesn't sit right with me, I'll be following up with Southern Response."
National MP Gerry Brownlee, who was quake recovery minister at the time, also called it "very odd".
Southern Response initially engaged TCIL in 2014 to keep staff safe. But according to a review of the use of external security firms by government agencies, the arrangement morphed into protecting Southern Response's brand.
Documents released by Southern Response also show TCIL suggested amendments to answers to written questions to Brownlee from Woods in 2016.
On another occasion, in September 2016, Southern Response's then-communications manager Linda Falwasser sent a copy of its response to a written parliamentary question to TCIL director Gavin Clark. The question was from Woods, who asked Brownlee: "Has Southern Response hired any private investigators in the past three years; if so, why, at what cost and for what reason."
Clark responded: "I have made some suggested amendments below in red but either version says what you need to say."
TCIL also appears to advise Southern Response on how to circumvent public scrutiny.
One email from TCIL's projects manager to Southern Response's chief executive Peter Rose in 2014 advises him it has a blog but "to get around disclosure, privacy and OIA issues, we normally set up a discreet email address for you – in Gmail or similar ... do you want us to set up a discreet email account for you – or do you want to?"
No response from Rose was released by Southern Response.
Clark told the Herald that email was "an ill-advised statement by a former employee who was reprimanded for it at the time".
He declined to comment further until all matters arising from the inquiry had been settled.
The documents were released by Southern Response on its website shortly before State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes released the scathing report on the use of external security firms on December 18.
The inquiry found that Southern Response, which is the government-owned company responsible for settling outstanding AMI Canterbury earthquake claims, had breached the State Services code of conduct over secret recordings of claimants' meetings in 2014 by a TCIL contractor.
Hughes has laid a complaint with police over the potentially unlawful recordings.
Southern Response told the Herald it needed some time to respond to specific questions, including why TCIL was asked to review the OIA response and what its advice was. But chief executive Anthony Honeybone said: "Southern Response follows the rules and expectations of the State Services Commission's Code of Conduct and the Official Information Act. Southern Response employees do not operate discrete [sic] email accounts to avoid our obligations under the Official Information Act."
Brownlee told the Herald someone needed to explain the $2070 charge for reviewing the OIA response because he had no knowledge of it as minister.
"That seems very odd."
Running a question asked by an opposition MP past the subject of the question would not be unusual, he said.
"But running it past someone to get them to check it because they were in it and then have them charge for doing so, there's something not quite right there," he said.
Brownlee rejected the suggestion Southern Response went from using TCIL to protect its staff to using the company to protect its brand.
"The allegation that they moved to brand protection is completely unsubstantiated and something that, frankly, the State Services Commissioner should be looking at himself for if he believes that's the case. It would be a total failure of his department if that were the case and they hadn't picked it up."
Brownlee said AMI insurance claimants were at the time in a very distressed state.
"You can't be critical of Southern Response without understanding the environment they were dealing with. No one can understand the tension that was in the air in Christchurch for a very long time."
Woods said it was disappointing Brownlee was "wilfully ignoring the distinction between hiring security consultants to protect staff safety, and secretly infiltrating claimants' legal meetings for the purposes of protecting the organisation's brand. The SSC report clearly drew this distinction.
"I certainly understand the situation in Christchurch at the time – I lived through it. I will always defend an organisation's rights and responsibilities to keep their staff safe. The SSC report shows this is how things began at Southern Response but is not how they ended.
"The report shows legitimate activity morphed into secret surveillance of claimants' private meetings to discuss legal strategy with their legal team. This was about protecting Southern Response's corporate reputation, not their staff. That is wrong, plain and simple," Woods said.