Minister demands details of TVNZ boss's credit-card

TVNZ boss Rick Ellis has racked up more than $140,000 on his company plastic – including $32,000 entertaining – during a time of major redundancies at the broadcaster, a Sunday Star-Times survey of more than 100 public-sector chief executives has revealed.

Last night broadcasting minister Jonathan Coleman said he expected "restraint" from the broadcaster and would be asking for details from its chairman, Sir John Anderson.

"I'm sure all of the figures would be made available to me on Monday," Coleman said.

Ellis' liberal spending over the 24 months to June this year coincided with a period of plunging profits and savage job cuts at the state-owned enterprise, which has been hit hard by the global financial crisis.

TVNZ's 2009 annual profit was 89 percent down on the previous year. Some 215 TVNZ staffers have lost their jobs since 2007. Between June 2008 and June 2010, Ellis, who earns between $710,000 and $840,000 yearly, spent $140,768.19 on his TVNZ-issued credit card.

Ellis' expenditure emerged as part of a Sunday Star-Times survey of public-sector CEOs throughout New Zealand – including state-owned enterprises, crown research institutes, commissions, universities and polytechnics, boards and trusts.

About 140 organisations were asked, under the Official Information Act, to provide expenditure information, including bank statements and invoices. A dozen of those CEOs had spending totals exceeding $60,000. Many repeatedly splashed out on flash restaurant meals complete with copious quantities of fine wine.

Some banquets for large numbers of staff and guests cost more than $3000. One organisation racked up $17,000 in just one month, mainly on Christmas parties, hampers and big feasts. Another generous CEO treated staff to $295 worth of chocolate-dipped fruit blooms during a "strategy day". There was also significant spending on taxis and travel within New Zealand and abroad.

But assessing just how Ellis spent $140,000 of TVNZ's money was difficult. Citing commercial sensitivity, the broadcaster refused to hand over anything more than a grand total, broken down into broad categories. This included $11,765.52 on "miscellaneous" items. The broadcaster last night refused to say what they were. The ombudsman is investigating.

TVNZ spokeswoman Megan Richards said TVNZ would release only limited details of Ellis's expenditure because "we are a commercial operation in a highly competitive, not to say cut-throat global industry. The kind of detail government departments may care to release is damaging to our competitive position."

Richards said it was unfair for TVNZ to release its data when bosses of private companies Fairfax, APN, MediaWorks and Sky were not forced to.

But Maori TV CEO Jim Mather, also a state-owned enterprise boss, happily provided his credit card statements and receipts. Mather spent $19,632.53 in the same 24-month period.

Former TVNZ CEO Ian Fraser, at the broadcaster's helm between 2005 and 2007, was surprised at his successor's expense claims, and TVNZ's secrecy.

"They are nothing like mine were," Fraser said. "It wouldn't have troubled me releasing the number of lunches I went to and how much was spent at each."

He added: "When I was chief executive I was prepared to defend the expenses that we incurred in front of parliament, because they were legitimate. Maybe the world has changed for Rick [Ellis] and TVNZ."

In his tenure Fraser ordered TVNZ staff to limit spending on wine to $60 a bottle, after reports $150 bottles of wine were being bought on the company. Five years on Richards said that policy remained. "In some cases it's permissible to go over that limit with the prior approval of the relevant senior executive."

Last week, following the Sunday Star-Times' inquiries, CEO credit card details from 34 government ministries and departments were released online. The highest 24-month figure came from the Food Safety Authority's David McKenzie, who spent $66,105.

That was exceeded by nine of the CEOs surveyed by the Star-Times, with Ellis the second-highest. First place belongs to Solid Energy boss Don Elder, who spent $209,390. Solid Energy spokesman Bryn Somerville said the firm had made five people redundant during the recession.

Sunday Star Times