By FRANCESCA MOLD political reporter
One of the dubious daubs at the centre of the Paintergate scandal was destroyed before police announced yesterday that they would not charge the Prime Minister.
They ruled that Helen Clark committed forgery when she signed a painting someone else had created, but said prosecuting her was not in the public interest.
The police report also revealed that after the scandal became public, Labour Party member Simon Mitchell purchased the painting from Henricus van Dijk, who had bought it at the original auction in 1999 for $1000.
Mr Mitchell paid $5000 for the artwork and gave it to Helen Clark's Auckland executive assistant, Joan Caulfield.
Mrs Caulfield asked Helen Clark what she should do with the painting and was told to do whatever she liked. She and her husband burned the canvas on May 6, several weeks after the scandal became public.
In the investigation, police considered whether Mrs Caulfield, her husband and Mr Mitchell had attempted to obstruct justice by obtaining and destroying the painting but found that there was insufficient evidence to charge them.
"It might be argued that these three could or should have known of the possibility of the police investigation," said the report.
"They appear to have been motivated by a desire to get the painting out of the possession or control of Mr van Dijk, whom they saw as generating negative publicity."
Mrs Caulfield did not return calls from the Weekend Herald yesterday.
A spokesman for Helen Clark said she had not been aware that the painting had been destroyed.
It took police more than two months to decide whether to charge the Prime Minister over the Paintergate scandal, which erupted in April when it was revealed that she had signed a painting by a Paraparaumu artist and passed it off as her own.
The painting was given to the charity Save Animals from Exploitation in 1999, when Helen Clark was Leader of the Opposition, for a celebrity auction, where it sold for $1000.
At a press conference in Wellington yesterday, Police Commissioner Rob Robinson revealed that he had decided against prosecution, although the officer who investigated had established that a prima facie case of forgery could be made against Helen Clark.
Under the Crimes Act 1961, forgery carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Mr Robinson said police had also found the same charge, plus another for the "uttering of a forged document", could be laid against Dawn Bush, a former staff member who commissioned the painting for Helen Clark.
But Mr Robinson said it was not in the public interest to charge the two women because their offending was at the lower end of the scale, they were motivated by a desire to assist a charity, had made no personal gain and did not realise the significance of their actions.
It was also likely that if they had been charged, the court would have discharged them without conviction.
Mr Robinson said he made his decision after being "strongly counselled" against prosecution by the Solicitor-General.
The Police Commissioner refused to answer questions about his decision yesterday, including how much the investigation cost.
The Prime Minister told reporters on the campaign trail in Hamilton that she was pleased the matter was at an end.
"The police have done their job as they see it. I've apologised in the past for an error of judgment."
Helen Clark said she did not believe the issue of the painting or the release of the police report had damaged Labour's election chances.
"Absolutely not. I have found the general public is extremely understanding on this and understanding of the fact that all I ever sought to do was help a charity."
National Party leader Bill English said the investigation was thorough and objective and he accepted the decision not to prosecute.
But he said if Helen Clark had taken responsibility for her actions and apologised when the concerns were first revealed, it would not have become such a big issue.
Act leader Richard Prebble said the police decision would leave the public wondering whether there was one law for Prime Ministers and another for everyone else.
But Helen Clark said this was "certainly not" the case - police often used their discretion not to prosecute.
The Wellington anaesthetist who complained to the police about Helen Clark told the Weekend Herald he was satisfied his concerns had been dealt with. Graham Sharpe wrote a letter of complaint on April 17 because he was concerned that the Prime Minister was attempting to brush off the concerns about her behaviour. Yesterday, he said he was not surprised at the decision not to prosecute.
In his letter, Dr Sharpe asked police to establish whether an offence had been committed and whether Helen Clark should be prosecuted.
Both questions had been answered in a thorough and complete investigation, he said.
Dr Sharpe said he did not regret laying the complaint, but he had not been prepared for the reaction it had generated.
Lauren Fouhy, the ghost artist behind the painting, is relieved at the decision, but distraught that her work has been destroyed.
"The decision is the obvious thing to have happen. I guess it will still jump up and bite her on the campaign trail, but at least she won't have a criminal record from it.
"I'm just cut to the quick that my beautiful, beautiful painting has been destroyed."
Dawn Bush, the former member of Helen Clark's staff who commissioned the artwork, wants to put the issue behind her, but said she was happy with what she called the best outcome.
By FRANCESCA MOLD political reporter