Thursday, 14 November 2019

Doubtless Peters Now Wishes He Had Stayed Mum

Integrity Shot to Pieces

The following piece by Tim Murphy reflects upon a court case long in the making and waiting.  It is parochial insofar as it deals with New Zealand political actors.  No-one outside our shores could be the slightest bit interested.  But here, in NZ it is a significant matter.

Winston Peters (presently the country's deputy Prime Minister) has for years told lies.  At least that is what it emerging in a current court case.  Peters is claiming damages for certain actions taken against him (by word and deed).  The claims are emerging from the swamp as having no credibility. 

Tim Murphy, co-editor of Newsroom, has been writing about the court case.  We will cut to the chase and allow him to lead us down the vacuous winding paths taken by Peters to a Bridge-Too-Far. 

Words Matter to These Civil Servants, Mr Peters

Tim Murphy

Journalists and opposing politicians seldom have the opportunity to precisely fact-check - with access to his documents - claims made by Winston Peters. But one government department has done it.

A Winston Peters interview on RNZ in August 2017 has featured repeatedly in his High Court privacy case.

Peters had denied, to RNZ, a report by Newsroom that he was billed $18,000 by the Ministry of Social Development for the seven-year overpayment, in an interview that also ran in a story on the Stuff website on August 28, 2017.

The MP said he repaid "way less" than $18,000 and then said it again:
"To say I repaid $18,000 is demonstrably false."
It was a claim that was near impossible for RNZ, Stuff or anyone else to explore one way or the other, given the privacy issues involved between the two parties.

But the Ministry of Social Development knew the right answer.  And when Peters sued the ministry, with its chief executive, the State Services Commissioner and two former National cabinet ministers, over the leak of his superannuation issue, the ministry had its chance to fact-check him.

Fact-check it did.
In a way that possibly only a substantial arm of the state with meticulous record-keeping could.  He didn't pay back $18,000. The court heard, first from Peters on day one and then repeatedly from others, that he repaid $17,936.43.  It was court evidence so is accepted as demonstrably true rather than his claim of "demonstrably false".

In the same Stuff story, Peters made the following claims, all fact-checked by MSD in preparing for its officers' time in the court-room. This interview was after he had looked into the problem, had it explained to him and received and paid the invoice for the debt he owed:

- Peters claimed the overpayment likely started in 2013/14. MSD staff and Peters confirmed in court it started on April 12, 2010, the day he applied for it.

- Peters said he had asked in 2017 to speak to the person who dealt with his case in 2010 but that person no longer worked there so couldn't act as a witness. MSD witnesses told the court the staff member worked in 2017 at the same office, in the same role, and does so until this day. She gave evidence for MSD to defend Peters' claim. An MSD witness denied Peters had asked her in 2017 if he could speak to that original case manager.

- Peters had said about his repayment: "The reality is a payment like that also attracts interest." An MSD witness told the court she had seen this claim by Peters and it was wrong. The ministry never charged interest on debts it wanted repaid and no issue of financial penalties would arise unless fraud had been involved, which was not the case for Peters.

- Another MSD witness told the court she had seen in a media report in 2017 that Peters had claimed he had not received the full superannuation because his payment had been "abated". She said no such abatement existed and the records back to 2010 showed he had been paid the full rate.

- Evidence from the official who dealt with Peters in 2017 said: "I remember reading in the media that Mr Peters was saying MSD had been unable to resolve how the mistake happened. That is not correct. It was very clear to me, which I communicated to Mr Peters in our meeting, that he had been paid the incorrect rate of superannuation as a result of his declaring at question 26 that he was in a relationship and completing the partner details accordingly. He had been paid in accordance with his declaration - as a single person."

- A regional official said she was aware of Peters' evidence that his application form was incomplete because he had not ticked a box on his current relationship status. "Based on all my service experience I do not consider the form is incomplete and I am not surprised it was processed in the form. The key information needed to determine Mr Peters' relationship status was provided, i.e that he was separated."

- Another official also challenged the claim MSD had made the original mistake. "I'm a bit of a perfectionist at times," the case manager he dealt with in 2010 told the court. "It was hard to hear that I had made a mistake. I was upset because I knew this was not correct, but I had no way to defend myself."

- Further, she said media reported Peters saying there appeared to have been an alteration on his application form and no one knew how it had been made. "Categorically, we do not alter forms," she said.

- Two MSD officials recalled Peters having told media he had dealt, in 2010, with a "very senior" MSD official. The woman concerned told the court: "He referred to me as a very senior person at MSD. I definitely do not consider myself a very senior person at MSD. Case manager is hardly what I call very senior."

Throughout the week of evidence, MSD officials or the Crown's lawyer, Victoria Casey QC, challenged Peters' version of events.  [Read the rest, here.]

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