By HERALD REPORTERS
An inquiry into the scampi industry which cost millions of dollars may be reopened after claims that New Zealand First leader Winston Peters accepted a "free" dinner from one of the men investigated.
Mr Peters last night vigorously denied claims made on TV One that the meal, at Kermadec Restaurant in Auckland's Viaduct Basin and paid for by co-owner Peter Simunovich, might imply "corruption".
"Do you think I'd compromise my career for a meal of fish?" he said.
But Mr Peters is at least expected to face an investigation by Parliament's privileges committee, which oversees the behaviour of MPs.
The National Party says it will lodge a complaint against him.
The chairman of the scampi inquiry, National MP David Carter, said he would ask the privileges committee to speak to Mr Peters and Mr Simunovich to clear up the controversy.
"I think the allegations are serious. If in any way he was collecting favours, it's close to corruption," he told the Herald.
"At the very least it's stupid."
Mr Carter said National was not involved in any of the claims being made against Mr Peters.
He said the cost of the 12-month inquiry into how rights to the $100 million scampi fishery were allocated would have run into millions of dollars.
Mr Peters was an MP sitting on the inquiry, and a witness giving evidence to it.
Last night, TV One reported that Deborah Bodger, an accounts manager at Kermadec, had revealed that Mr Peters had a meal there, paid for by Mr Simunovich, in September last year, while the inquiry was going on.
Mr Simunovich and Vaughan Wilkinson co-own the restaurant.
Mr Peters told Holmes that he accepted the meal because he had been overcharged on a previous visit, a statement verified by Mr Simunovich.
Mr Peters said claims of corruption were "a laughable beatup".
"I will put my career on the line now to say what you ran on TVNZ tonight with respect to this story is blatantly untrue."
Mr Peters has based much of his career on exposing possible corporate corruption in New Zealand.
Previous claims he made led to an inquiry into tax avoidance and evasion by major companies.
He said last night he would sue Television New Zealand.
"There was no free meal. You're not going to get away with a filthy little allegation like this."
Mr Simunovich said that Mr Peters had a credit at the restaurant after being overcharged and "mucked about" after an earlier dinner.
"We had overcharged him on a previous occasion and had given him very poor service."
Entrees at the restaurant cost around $16, mains around $28- $32. Mr Simunovich said he was not friends with Mr Peters, but had met him occasionally. He expected he would have restaurant receipts to document his statement.
Mr Carter said he would ask the primary production committee at its next meeting, on February 9, what it should do about the inquiry.
He did not think it needed to be held again.
"He was but one member."
The inquiry had to deal with another conflict of interest claim, after Green MP Ian Ewen-Street developed a relationship with a lawyer appearing before it. Mr Ewen-Street stepped down as a committee member.
Constitutional law expert Bill Hodge told TVNZ last night the claims about the meal should be investigated.
"Decision-makers must appear to be free from any influence, from any conflict, from any secret interests in one of the parties or the outcome.
"The outcome of the committee and the report of the committee, would now appear to be tainted."
The owner of fishing company Barine Developments, which was one of the plaintiffs against the Ministry of Fisheries and Simunovich, last night called for a fresh inquiry if the claim against Mr Peters was verified.
Owner Neil Penwarden said the inquiry would be compromised if the claim were true.
His company would seek to recover its costs and would urge that a new select committee look into the affair - without Mr Peters.
The primary production committee is regarded as bipartisan, which is why the Government allows a National MP to chair it.
Mr Peters, who replaced colleague Doug Woolerton for most of the inquiry, played a crucial role in the findings by supporting Labour MPs in recommending $2.9 million compensation for aggrieved fishers.
Other Opposition MPs opposed the payment.
Labour MPs on the committee were not talking but a spokesman for the Prime Minister said the Government had "noted the accusation".
By HERALD REPORTERS