The incident involving former Government minister Meka Whaitiri and a staff member allegedly left bruising to the upper right arm of the staffer and photos of bruises were produced to the inquiry, a draft report leaked to the Herald shows. The incident occurred because Whaitiri was unhappy at not having been alerted to a photo opportunity at a media standup with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a lunch break at a function in Gisborne.
Other ministers were standing behind Ardern but Whaitiri wasn't because no one had told her it was happening.
There is no dispute that Whaitiri had words with her staffer for missing the event.
The staff member claims that Whaitiri came up behind her in the foyer of the building and grabbed her arm hard and took her outside when she saw Ardern having the standup.
But Whaitiri denies physically touching her staff member at any stage. There were no witnesses.
David Patten, the Wellington lawyer who conducted the inquiry for Ministerial Services, the employer of ministerial staff, found on the balance of probabilities that the staff member's version was the more likely explanation.
He found that Whaitiri did not pull or drag the press secretary outside from the foyer of the building where the meeting was taking place.
But he found it more probable that Whaitiri approached the staffer from behind and grabbed her by the arm and that Whaitiri spoke in a raised voice to the staffer.
In evidence to the inquiry, the staff member said Whaitiri had blamed her for missing the media standup with the Prime Minister.
"It was during ... the break so I'd gone out into the hallway, gone to the bathroom and I'd just gone out into the hallway into the vestibule for a bit of a breather and that's when she came over," the staff member said.
"She grabbed me by the arm and pulled me outside and said she needed to talk to me and when we were outside she raised her voice.
"I wouldn't say yelled but she did raise her voice to me and asked me if I knew what I was doing in my job and did I realise I'd missed a media opportunity and that that was embarrassing to her because it was her electorate."
The staffer originally told the inquiry that Whaitiri had pinched her arm but changed that to grabbed.
"It was hard and it scared the living daylights out of me," she said.
In other parts of her evidence, she said: "She was definitely angry, and was definitely mad that I had screwed up. It scared me a lot and I didn't want to return to that [work environment]."
Ardern sacked Whaitiri last Thursday, a day after seeing the final report, saying she had lost confidence in Whaitiri at this time, but did not rule out a return at some point.
Ardern said she would not release the report to protect the privacy of the staff member but the Herald is publishing some of the evidence outlined in a draft of the final report in the public interest.
Whaitiri remains the MP for the eastern Māori electorate of Ikaroa-Rawhiti and Labour's Māori MPs maintain support in her as co-leader of the Labour Māori caucus.
In Whaitiri's evidence to the inquiry, she said that when she saw the standup taking place she looked for the press secretary and saw her coming towards her. She did not grab her.
She asked her to go outside with her. "All I wanted ... was to go outside so she could see the stand up and because there were so many people around the dining hall it was hard to have a conversation cos people were talking over lunch. I thought it would be best ... to talk outside where there were less people."
Once they were outside, Whaitiri pointed to Jacinda Ardern's standup and asked what was wrong with that picture they were looking at.
"I was pointing at the situation and asking very direct questions and then being really clear — 'this is your role'."
Whaitiri said the press secretary was apologising, and Whaitiri said: "This is your job, this is what you are supposed to be watching out for".
The whole thing had taken about two minutes, Whaitiri said "because while I was doing that ... the standup was over."
The incident occurred on August 27 at the Ngati Porou summit attended by Ardern and several ministers — Kelvin Davis, Nanaia Mahuta, Carmel Sepuloni, Eugenie Sage and Whaitiri according to the ministerial media diary. Whaitiri was suspended by Ardern as a minister on August 30, while Ministerial Services, the employer of ministerial staff, conducted an inquiry.
The draft report also makes it clear that a member of the Prime Minister's staff, press secretary Leah Haines, was closely involved in events after the incident. Haines had accompanied Ardern to Gisborne, and had seen Whaitiri's press secretary after the standup had ended and they were all back inside.
"She looked traumatised," Haines told the inquiry. "She wasn't crying but she just looked stunned and upset so I was concerned about her."
They decided to talk about it when they got back to Wellington.
Haines met the staffer two days later in Haines' Beehive office and Ardern's chief of staff, Mike Munro attended part of it. Munro contacted Whaitiri that day as well.
The next day, August 30, Haines also attended a meeting with the general manager of ministerial and secretariat services, Morag Ingram, who took a photograph of the staff member's upper arm. The staffer also took a selfie of the arm.
Patten questioned the staff member about the bruises, why it took three days to see them and whether they could have been caused by something else such as a door handle.
She said it wasn't until she was at a meeting with ministerial services on August 30 that they asked if there were any marks and until then she hadn't thought to look.
Patten's finding in the draft report is: "The photographs taken by Morag Ingram on August 30 2018 of [the press secretary's] upper right arm showing a bruise on that arm ... are consistent, in my view, with someone being approached from behind and grabbed by a right-handed person".
The inquiry also questioned Haines about whether the press secretary had said anything to her in Gisborne straight after the incident about being grabbed and Haines did not recall her doing so.
But Patten did not find any such omission to be of great note.
"Nothing in my view turns on the fact that [the staff] failed to mention to Ms Haines at this point that she had been grabbed by the minister."
Haines had been extremely busy, the staff member had been upset and arrangements had been been made to follow up the matter when they both got back to Wellington.