By JO-MARIE BROWN
A young Inland Revenue clerk with two small children to support found herself desperately short of money.
With access to the department's database, the Manukau woman began selling taxpayer's names, addresses and phone numbers to debt collectors who were trying to track people down.
The continual abuse of her position from August 1995 to 1998 cost Sopo Matagi, aged 31, her freedom. After giving birth to her third child in June, she was jailed for nine months.
Judge Phil Gittos told Matagi that her actions struck at the heart of the public service and eroded its integrity - but unfortunately, her case is not an isolated incident.
Transparency International's sixth annual Corruption Perceptions Index, made public on Thursday, ranks New Zealand third equal with Sweden, behind Finland and Denmark, in the least corrupt nation stakes.
New Zealand has remained in the top four places since the survey began and held first place in 1995 and 1996.
But despite the country's reputation, cases involving bribery and corruption of officials continue to come before the courts.
Debt collector Terrence Cyril Charleston, aged 41, yesterday received a nine-month suspended sentenced for bribing Matagi. He was the latest in a string of people to be sentenced on corruption charges.
Officials from the Department of Internal Affairs, Housing New Zealand, Department of Corrections and the Immigration Service, along with a District Court judge and even an Auditor-General, have all been found guilty of corruption in recent years.
A former team leader of the Auckland passport office, Christopher Robinson, is serving a 2 1/2-year sentence for issuing 48 false passports.
Housing NZ employee Paul Graham received a one-year sentence last month for accepting $57,000 in bribes, while Mt Eden Prison's administration manager Dennis Kake was convicted in July of stealing almost $250,000.
Immigration officer Pesemino Telea pleaded guilty in June to taking $100,000 in bribes to grant residency permits, and District Court Judge Robert Hesketh admitted eight fraud charges in 1997.
That year also saw the downfall of Auditor-General Jeff Chapman, who became the country's most senior public servant to be convicted on fraud charges.
He served half of his 18-month sentence before his release in December 1997.
For a nation that has always prided itself on having an honest and dedicated public service, such cases suggest standards are slipping.
A recent survey of 66 New Zealand employers by consulting firm Ernst & Young showed 90 per cent believed the incidence of fraud had stayed the same or risen in the past five years. Sixty per cent had been a victim in the past 12 months.
Victoria University criminologist Mark Thornton, who specialises in white-collar and corporate crime, agrees that corruption, particularly in the public sector, seems to have risen in the past 20 years.
But, he said, any increase could not be confirmed as the authorities may simply be detecting more cases.
However, changes within the public sector since the 1980s made corruption more likely.
Public servants no longer had a job for life.
"These days, people's time in the public service is one, two or three years before they move onto something else, so there's not that same extent of loyalty," he said.
"Also, traditionally, the public service was associated with exactly that - public service. People were attracted to such jobs because they wanted to do something for their society. But people are more individually oriented these days."
Increased mobility and the perceived level of pay and working conditions also helped influence the incidence of corruption.
While these factors could fuel corruption, they could also lead to more cases being uncovered and charges being laid, Mr Thornton said.
"It may well have been dealt with informally in the past. You would stay on in the public service but you would never get a promotion.
"Now there is less of a social bond between management and workers so you are fired, kicked out and prosecuted."
Serious Fraud Office director David Bradshaw did not believe corruption in the public service had increased over the past 20 years but said the recent high-profile cases often shocked the public.
"We pride ourselves on having a public service that is not corrupt and these sorts of things undermine the whole ethos of it," he said.
"There is an expectation and a reputation that is well earned and anything that challenges that has to be taken seriously because it knocks a fundamental in our society."
Mr Bradshaw said the SFO completed around 19 prosecutions a year - only a few of which involved public servants.
And while corruption was not widespread, authorities had to remain vigilant. "My view is that basically you can never lower your guard. I would never say to anybody that we don't need to worry about it. The moment you say that, you've got a problem."