He was once a kingpin bankrolling a major meth operation - and it landed him a 14-year jail sentence. But these days Billy Macfarlane is out and has gone straight - and he's using his experience and skills to help others do the same. Many, including Te Arawa leaders, police and judges, support his tikanga community programme but emails written by Corrections staff show they feared his course could be used for gang prospecting. Now Macfarlane is demanding an apology.

A former hard-nosed criminal helping offenders go straight doesn't have the skills for the job and his course could be used for gang prospecting, Corrections staff have claimed.

Billy Macfarlane's Pūwhakamua programme - which involves rehabilitation including te reo classes, kapa haka, and fitness - has received wide support from Rotorua police, judges, Te Arawa kaumātua and community groups.

Billy Macfarlane

But documents released by the Corrections Department under the Official Information Act, show some of its staff had a different view.

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In response to the criticisms of his skills and capabilities, Macfarlane said: ''Who better to work with offenders than someone who has been an offender who fully understands the problem?''

He is now demanding an apology.

Macfarlane was once a drug lord living in an eight-bedroom, million-dollar mansion in Tauranga's Ohauiti hills.

But while serving his 14-year prison sentence he finally learned about tikanga - his Māori cultural roots, and te reo, to the point he taught his cellmates too.

Billy Macfarlane launched the 2018 course at Apumoana Marae last May with support from Te Arawa leaders. Photo / File
Billy Macfarlane launched the 2018 course at Apumoana Marae last May with support from Te Arawa leaders. Photo / File

Seeing the change in himself and others was what prompted Macfarlane to start the Pūwhakamua programme, which is not government funded, in Rotorua years later.

However, in emails obtained by the Rotorua Daily Post one Corrections staff member wrote to another last August, saying they believed Macfarlane ''has neither the skills nor the capability to manage a group of high risk offenders".

"What has been of particular concern about this programme is the cohort which Mr Macfarlane has been targeting, essentially very high risk gang affiliated men ... We have concerns that this programme could be used for prospecting ... ''

"All of the research indicates that working with high-risk offenders in the type of environment Mr Macfarlane promotes has the potential to increase the risk of these offenders," the staff member wrote.

In the same email, the staff member questioned the Rotorua police stance.

"Offenders on EM [Electronically Monitored] Bail do attend this programme as police are supportive however I appreciate they may not understand the inherent risk".

Another email said: "As discussed, Billy's programme has been supported in the wider community space but never by Corrections."

Judge Mike Crosbie when he left Whanganui in 2003. Photo / File
Judge Mike Crosbie when he left Whanganui in 2003. Photo / File

In November, when District Court Judge Michael Crosbie did not take on Corrections' viewpoint during a court appearance and instead endorsed the Pūwhakamua programme, a staff member wrote to a colleague, referencing the judge's decision.

"Thanks for the outcome thought he would get it."

But Judge Crosbie was not alone. Judge Alayne Wills had also used Pūwhakamua as a supporting factor in granting electronically monitored bail for an offender in June, who was being released from Waikeria Prison.

Judge Alayne Wills being sworn in in Rotorua in 2010. Photo / File
Judge Alayne Wills being sworn in in Rotorua in 2010. Photo / File

Macfarlane is now seeking an apology from Corrections regarding the suspicions and doubts expressed about his Pūwhakamua programme.

He told the Rotorua Daily Post patched gang members were not allowed on the course, so the prospecting comment was "one of the most frustrating".

He said he had worked with a "lovely, supportive, and hard-working" probation officer, but from his perspective, he had never been able to build a good rapport with Corrections officials.

He said of the six men who took part in his course last year, one left after to four months to work, and the other five graduated in December.

"Three of them have gone into full-time work and the other two are helping me mentor the new intake."

The 2019 intake had 12 participants "with a variety of issues including violence, drug abuse, depression, and other mental health issues", Macfarlane said.

Macfarlane said community support and donations were crucial.

"The Rotorua Energy Charitable Trust's support has been phenomenal and without them, we would be really struggling."

Te Arawa Pukenga Koeke Council chairman Paraone Pirika, a long-time supporter of Macfarlane, said: ''To suggest possible prospecting is ludicrous, especially since his programmes requires a lot of community awhi."

Kaumātua Paraone Pirika with Billy Macfarlane. Photo / File
Kaumātua Paraone Pirika with Billy Macfarlane. Photo / File

He said Macfarlane's course was "open and transparent" and a wide range of community members, including himself, had been involved.

Rotorua lawyer and activist Annette Sykes described Macfarlane's course as "transformative", based on cases she was familiar with.

Rotorua lawyer and activist Annette Sykes. Photo / File
Rotorua lawyer and activist Annette Sykes. Photo / File

Louise Wood, operations director, central region for Corrections said, in a statement, department staff had a positive and constructive meeting with McFarlane this week, focused on shared goals and how they both could better understand each other's work.

''We have had dialogue with Mr McFarlane for several months and we are committed to continuing to talk to each other and work collaboratively for a common goal,'' she said.

''We have a range of programmes available to address offending-related factors and ensure these are undertaken in a safe environment for both participants and facilitators.''

Wood said the Pūwhakamua programme was not delivered in prisons and was not a contracted rehabilitation programme for offenders in the community. McFarlane had not sought to have his programme formally approved by Corrections.

In August last year, Community Corrections made an interim decision to remove offenders from the programme, months after it began, "pending assessment of the material covered during the course".

However, the attendees were then allowed to return after "discussions between police and Corrections".

Police declined to comment because the relevant spokesperson was on leave.

The Ministry of Justice said it would not be appropriate to comment.

What Pūwhakamua entails

• 100 hours in tikanga wānanga
• 200 hours in te reo classes
• 100 hours of community service
• 100 hours learning formal Māori speaking (whaikorero)
• 60 hours kapa haka and mau rākau training
• 20 hours waiata practise
• 100 hours engaged in group fitness activities