Rules on ministerial credit card use loose
BY TRACY WATKINS AND DAVE BURGESS
The rules on the use of ministerial credit cards are so lax that an $800 lunch for two would not even be queried by officials.
Credit card receipts released yesterday tell a story of government ministers thinking nothing of racking up bills for hundreds of dollars worth at a time of alcohol, food and other expenses on the taxpayer – including personal items such as golf clubs, new clothes, movies and massages.
The political future of rising Labour star Shane Jones is in tatters, with ministerial credit card receipts showing he billed pornographic movies to the taxpayer.
Often tipped as a future Labour leader, Mr Jones refused to resign over the scandal but appeared to leave the door open, saying he did not want to make any decisions in the heat of moment.
He publicly confessed to the spending after telling his wife early yesterday. She was "injured and enraged" but he believed the family would pull through. Mr Jones made no excuses for watching porn: "I'm a red-blooded robust dude."
There appeared to be no limits on what ministers believed they were entitled to charge – in one case more than $800 from a bike shop – some apparently thumbing their noses at warnings from officials not to use their cards for personal expenses, regardless of whether they intended repaying the money later.
Prime Minister John Key said there was always degree of subjectivity but much of what was being discussed was within the rules.
"The question is whether the rules are set appropriately," he told Radio New Zealand.
"There's nothing like the glare of the media, I think, to sharpen the minds of those who are guardians of taxpayers money."
Ministers have a "very unusual job" which required travelling a lot and spending time away from home, Mr Key said.
However, there was increasing transparency on their expenses now internationally and the current situation did not reflect well on politics in general, he said.
"It's the sort of thing that can undermine confidence in politicians."
A spokesman for Ministerial Services, which oversees ministerial credit card spending, said ministers were trusted to spend what was "actual and reasonable".
"They are still required to submit a statement and receipt but that is what they are required to do and we would accept that," Allen Walley said. "They are ministers of the Crown, don't forget."
Prime Minister John Key had requested a review by the auditor-general's office of the systems, rules and protocols around ministerial credit cards, which was under way, Mr Walley said. "When it comes back it will inform any changes to the rules."
Spending rules are included in a handbook given to all ministers.
A spokeswoman for the auditor-general's office said the review was "several months away" from completion and refused to say what it had so far revealed.
The review's terms of reference include looking at how appropriate and effective the system is.
The spotlight on ministerial spending has come through information obtained under the Official Information Act.
Despite this, Mr Walley believes there is transparency in the existing system. "Don't forget that for quite a long time those [kinds] of Official Information Act requests were turned down on the basis they were too intrusive to do."
Collating the more than 7000 pages of credit card transactions and receipts was likely to cost more than $50,000, Mr Walley said.
While Mr Jones was the worst offender, repaying more than $6000 on personal items, the receipts also showed Labour MP Chris Carter repeatedly using his card for personal expenses that were later reimbursed – including massages for himself and partner Peter Kaiser.
Mr Carter has previously been in the gun over more than $100,000 in travel racked up while he was a minister, usually taking Mr Kaiser with him.
It appears all the money Labour ministers charged was repaid well before the party lost office.
The credit card receipts arrived at newspaper offices in boxes yesterday morning and by late afternoon Dominion Post journalists had still managed to read through only a fraction of them. There are still boxes of receipts for credit cards used by other Labour ministers and most National ministers to go through.
But among the National ministers whose receipts have so far been checked, spending by Trade Minister Tim Groser has already raised eyebrows – including a $460 minibar bill run up in a week in Copenhagen.
He also bought a $958 jacket and $439 walking boots when his luggage was lost – something that appeared to happen regularly to ministers, with several of them clocking up bills for new suits and other clothes while overseas.
Mr Key insisted there was nothing out of the ordinary about Mr Groser's spending and it added up to only about one drink a day because alcohol in Denmark was expensive.
Former prime minister Helen Clark was responsible for Ministerial Services during the period covered by the released papers.
Her former deputy, Michael Cullen, said she could not be blamed for inappropriate spending.
"The last thing you want is the prime minister going through every receipt coming into the ministerial office. The prime minister has more important things to do and it is the Ministerial Services' job."
But taxpayers should be concerned with some of the spending, Dr Cullen said.
"I don't want to get into individual cases but clearly people were using the card for things that it was not meant to be used for. In those cases it is appropriate that money is paid back and people who did it express their regrets."
Former Labour MP John Tamihere also believes some ministers are misusing the system.
"You have to make an assertive mental effort to use the ministerial card as opposed to your own. Even if a minister lost their luggage while travelling it would be a long stretch to believe they didn't have their personal credit card in their wallet."
MPs can lose their jobs if convicted of a criminal offence that attracts a prison sentence of three months or more.
"The question is has any of these [credit card spending] acts come within the purview of the Crimes Act?" Mr Tamihere said.
Former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer said it would not be appropriate to comment.
"In my day ministers didn't have credit cards."
- With NZPA
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