'Clandestine rendezvous' plotting revealed in Joanne Harrison Transport Ministry fraud case
Fraudster Joanne Harrison tried arranging a night-time "clandestine rendezvous" in her Ministry of Transport office while she was under investigation.
The ministry has also confirmed there were multiple concerns raised about Harrison long before she fled the country last year, in the wake of her $725,000 fraud.
NZ First leader Winston Peters has now called for Harrison's former ministry boss Martin Matthews – who is currently the auditor-general, to stand down. Other Opposition MPs have also raised concerns.
Matthews, who is overseas, said last night he stood by previous assertions that he had handled the saga decisively, and investigated it thoroughly.
Harrison wreaked havoc at the transport ministry for years and was wanted in Australia over fraud allegations. She stole money from the ministry partly through invoicing fake companies.
She is currently in jail in New Zealand but, in a civil case, police are chasing assets allegedly linked to her.
New documents released after an Official Information Act request by Stuff show someone was caught on a surveillance camera trying to sneak into the ministry's office on April 25 last year, three days after Harrison learned she was under investigation and that her building access would be revoked.
Harrison urged a contractor to enter the premises, access her office, and leave an envelope in the payroll office.
Entry was attempted over Anzac weekend. "Two clandestine rendezvous with the contractor were arranged, one at night," Matthews wrote to Harrison last year.
He added: "You appear to be deliberately interfering with documents in the workplace at a time when your access has been restricted."
In other documents, new ministry chief executive Peter Mersi said police were pursuing Harrison, her husband Pat Sharp and "at least one other party" in hopes of recovering money.
The ministry would not name the third person.
Harrison arranged work for Sharp at the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC), without disclosing any conflict of interest, and another recruit, at the MoT, has also come under suspicion.
On April 29 last year, Matthews wrote to someone employed in the Organisational Development Group: "You never report to the office and there is no evidence of you doing any work for us."
"SEVERAL STRANGE THINGS"
Meanwhile, TAIC staff claimed "several strange things" happened with Sharp's expenses, accommodation and behaviour, before he left abruptly in mid-2015.
Harrison insisted Sharp should never take a "psych test" before working with TAIC, and was adamant he go to a UK investigations course.
When Harrison faced investigation, she told Matthews on May 11 last year she was overseas, was not returning, and had "no family, property or potential work opportunities left" in New Zealand.
Harrison previously worked at Far North District Council and Australia's Goulburn-Murray Water. Matthews was among a three-person selection panel who hired her, deeming she was likely to "hit the ground running and build constructive relationships within MoT". Other panellists' names were redacted.
Reference checks found, among other things, that Harrison had an ability to "persuade and influence".
Peters, Labour's Sue Moroney, and the Greens' Julie-Anne Genter raised concerns this week about the fraud, and about Matthews continuing as auditor-general.
"HE SHOULD STEP DOWN"
"He should step down," Peters said of Matthews on Tuesday afternoon, citing the plight of three MoT whistleblowers he said were treated abysmally.
Peters said that, based on his analysis, "a number of people seriously misled Parliament when they were asked to endorse" Matthews.
The cross-party officers of Parliament committee recommended Matthews for the job of controller and auditor-general, in a confidential interview last year.
Moroney said it was time for Matthews and Speaker of the House David Carter to talk.
"There are some decisions for Martin Matthews to make now around the integrity of the auditor-general's office, but he's the only one who can make those decisions. Well, it's between him and the Speaker."
Genter said the fraud was "shocking" and added: "It is quite surprising that Martin Matthews has got the job as the auditor-general, given what happened under his watch at the Ministry of Transport."
Matthews has repeatedly said he stood by his handling of the case. He is overseas at a conference of auditors-general this week, and said he was unavailable to talk.
Carter declined to answer questions. He has said previously that Matthews provided satisfactory interview responses during the confidential session.
Former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer said there was not enough evidence that Matthews should quit, though he believed there was too much secrecy in Parliament generally.
The auditor-general, once appointed, should be insulated from political pressures, he said. "There is a major difficulty here - that is, the Official Information Act does not apply to Parliament."
He said the Harrison fraud did not mean there was evidence of Matthews doing wrong. "It doesn't automatically mean that he's not properly qualified for the office, or that he should be removed from it."
THE SAGA IN BRIEF
What happened here?
Former Ministry of Transport employee Joanne Harrison, also known as Joanne Sharp, was jailed for three years and seven months in February for stealing more than $725,000 of taxpayers' money. The former senior manager admitted to three charges of dishonestly using a document, and was sentenced in Manukau District Court.
How did she do it?
For more than three years from late 2013, she used false invoices to make payments to three fake entities, and misappropriated money into her own accounts. While general manager of organisational development, she authorised a $227,000 payment to Sharp Design, and another $499,000 in payments to Mazarine Associates and EJW Consultants. She gave gifts to colleagues and did work favours for senior management staff in order to deflect attention from her offending.
How was she caught?
Her crimes came to light in July 2016, but Harrison was first questioned by the ministry about dubious contracts at least as far back as May 2014. That was after she recommended her husband, Peter Sharp, run a ministry-funded project at the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC). At the time, TAIC staff did not know the two were married, and Harrison denied they were in a relationship. Staff became suspicious when they noticed strange behaviour between the pair, and senior management took their concerns to the ministry. Subsequent enquiries uncovered the fraud. Harrison soon left the country, but was arrested after returning from Canada.
Who is responsible?
Ministry of Transport chief executive Peter Mersi said the ministry had "fallen behind" best practice in not picking up the fraud sooner, and it planned to improve employee screening processes. Harrison was the subject of a fraud investigation in Australia before she landed a job at the ministry. Former chief executive Martin Matthews, who is now auditor-general, has defended his handling of the case, saying Harrison was "sophisticated and manipulative".