Cabinet Minister Shane Jones says he played no part in the Government's decision to grant up to $4.6m to a Northland tourism project, and he had nothing to do with the project except for a meeting five years ago in a pub in Hokianga.
And despite declaring a conflict of interest in the Manea Footprints of Kupe project, Jones, now the Regional Economic Development Minister, says he did not need to remove himself from a ministerial meeting about funding for the project.
During the meeting, in February last year and 11 days before the Government announcement approving the funding, Jones said he provided publicly available information to Finance Minister Grant Robertson, but an official from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) described it as giving reassurances about the project's viability.
Act leader David Seymour has written to Auditor-General John Ryan asking him to investigate Jones' involvement, which he called "completely inappropriate" and grounds for him to be sacked.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is standing by Jones, saying last night: "Based on both the information and advice I've received, the conflict of interest was managed in accordance with the Cabinet Manual so therefore I would have no cause to sack Minister Jones."
Jones declared a perceived conflict of interest over Manea when its funding application was made in November 2017, and asked that any funding decisions about the project from the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) be made by other ministers.
He said he had advocated for the project when he was a Labour MP in 2014 and knew the late Whetu Naera, a Hokianga chief, who was a key proponent of the project.
That led to Manea applying for Government funding and sending documents to MBIE in 2014. The documents proposed Jones as chairman of the project.
Jones downplayed his role this morning, saying he met with Naera and others in a pub in Opononi.
"Someone, I'm not entirely sure, communicated to the Government in 2014 or 2015 that I was going to be the chair of a trust to drive this project forward," Jones told Radio NZ.
"Just because I turn up to a meeting and make a positive impact on people - after all, everyone wants Sonny Bill in their team - that doesn't mean I was the chairman or director. It means I was at a random meeting five years ago.
"I was never ever going to be the chair. I was never appointed as the chair. I have declared a potential conflict of interest five years later."
Jones said he followed the Cabinet Manual, which states that a minister has to declare perceived conflicts of interests, and affected issues can be transferred to another minister.
The manual also states that a minister needed to consider whether it was appropriate to be at Cabinet or Cabinet committee meetings that discuss issues involving the conflict of interest.
Jones told Radio NZ he did not have to remove himself from the weekly PGF meeting in February, which included Robertson, Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis, Economic Development Minister David Parker and Transport Minister Phil Twyford.
"Just because you declare a perceived conflict of interest doesn't mean you are tongueless or voiceless. In no way did I influence the ability or otherwise of four other ministers to say yes or no.
"It is not necessary for me physically to leave every meeting. I may find myself in very few meetings."
Notes about the meeting - released under the Official Information Act - showed that Jones reassured Robertson about the project's viability.
"Minister Jones provided reassurance that, as the project has Far North Holding Ltd, the commercial arm of the Far North District Council, involved in its governance structures, he was comfortable their presence would alleviate any concerns on the issue," an email about the meeting from MBIE official Mark Patterson said.
"Minister Robertson was comfortable to sign the briefing knowing this mitigation was in place."
Jones was dismissive of the email, saying it was what "one of the 35 officials - far too many I now realise sitting in these meetings - recorded".
"It was public knowledge this project involved the Far North District Council. I did not approve, I did not sign off, I did not fund this project. Neither have I ever been an office holder on any organisation to do with this project.
"This whole story's a beat-up."
But Seymour said Jones' involvement meant he was not fit to be a minister.
"Given he was to be the project's chairman, Shane Jones has a clear conflict of interest in relation to Manea. It is deeply concerning that he would intervene when it was completely inappropriate for him to do so.
"The Prime Minister has no choice but to sack him."
National Party regional development spokesman Paul Goldsmith said Jones needed to explain his actions.
"The Prime Minister should haul him in to the office and get him to reconcile what appear to be irreconcilable statements: that he wasn't involved, and that he was at the meeting and seems to have been very active."
• 2014: Shane Jones, then a Labour MP, meets with supporters of the Manea project. Documents later sent to MBIE show that Manea proposed Jones as chairman of the project.
• Nov 2017: Jones, now Regional Economic Development Minister in charge of the Provincial Growth Fund, receives a funding proposal from Manea. He declares a potential conflict of interest with the Cabinet Office.
• Feb 8, 2018: Briefing about the Manea proposal from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to Ministers Kelvin Davis, Grant Robertson, Phil Twyford and David Parker notes Jones' conflict of interest
• Feb 12, 2018: Weekly PGF meeting including Jones, Davis, Robertson, Twyford and Parker includes discussion of Manea.
• Feb 16, 2018: Email from MBIE official to MBIE and Treasury colleagues describing Feb 12 meeting as Jones providing reassurances to Robertson about the project.
• Feb 23, 2018: Kelvin Davis announces approval of up to $4.6m for Manea from the PGF.
• March 2018: Answering written parliamentary question from David Seymour, Jones says he asked other ministers to make decisions about Manea.
• April 2018: Answering written parliamentary question from Paul Goldsmith, Jones says he has had no formal meetings about Manea since he became minister.
• May 2018: Answering written parliamentary question from David Seymour, Jones says he declared a potential conflict of interest over Manea in late 2017.
• Dec 2018/Jan 2019: MBIE releases documents, including emails from officials, relating to the Manea project.
• March 2019: David Seymour calls for Jones to be sacked for his role in the Manea decision. Jacinda Ardern stands by Jones.