The Serious Fraud Office has been asked to investigate allegations of misspending by the commercial arm of kohanga reo, less than 12 hours after Education Minister Hekia Parata put her credibility on the line by promising taxpayers there had been no impropriety.
In a humiliating U-turn yesterday, Ms Parata and Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples announced the SFO had been asked to investigate after a trustee from the Kohanga Reo National Trust passed on "fresh allegations" of misspending involving subsidiary Te Pataka Ohanga (TPO).
The development followed a shambolic press conference late on Tuesday evening in which Ms Parata said she was satisfied no public money had been spent inappropriately, despite allegations that TPO general manager Lynda Tawhiwhirangi used her work credit card to buy a wedding dress, an $800 Trelise Cooper dress, a 21st birthday gift, and make a $1000 cash withdrawal as koha for a tangi she did not attend.
Ms Parata said a report commissioned from accountants Ernst & Young had cleared both the trust and Te Pataka Ohanga, but she subsequently admitted they never looked into the allegations surrounding Ms Tawhiwhirangi because that was outside its terms of reference.
She said the Government could not investigate those allegations because TPO received "no public monies" - but by yesterday she had done an about-face and referred the matters to the SFO.
TPO is wholly owned by the trust, which receives $92 million in taxpayer funding annually. TPO's funding comes from kohanga reo, which uses money paid to it by the Ministry of Education to buy services such as insurance from TPO.
Ms Parata stuck to the line yesterday that TPO was a private company and how it spent its money was not something the Government should be involved in.
But she said it had been necessary to refer matters to the SFO to maintain public confidence. "Our point is there are allegations that haven't yet been answered by the trust. They need to be so that public confidence can be restored," Ms Parata said.
Internal Affairs is already investigating TPO, which is a registered charity.
Trust spokesman Derek Fox confirmed last night the board was already aware of fresh allegations and planned to meet this weekend to discuss them in Auckland.
Labour leader David Cunliffe said Ms Parata had not told the truth by giving an assurance that no money was misspent so soon before calling for an investigation.
Mana leader Hone Harawira said he was "gutted" by the matter, which had created major divisions in the kohanga movement.
- The Dominion Post
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