Greens demand audit over corporate gifts

JOHN HARTEVELT
Last updated 14:01 22/07/2011
REVIEW OF POLICY: Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf.
MAARTEN HOLL/ The Dominion Post
REVIEW OF POLICY: Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf.

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Fresh details have emerged of Treasury staff taking corporate gifts, like tickets to the Top Gear show, with the Green Party now calling on the State Services commissioner to step in.

Yesterday, the Treasury's register of corporate gifts and hospitality back to July last year was released.

Further details back to February 2007 have today emerged.

Matthew Collin, the debt office portfolio manager who emerged yesterday as the recipient of 36 freebies in 46 weeks, is revealed in the latest documents as having taken tickets to the Top Gear television show from CBA and to the cricket from ANZ Bank.

Collin and assistant portfolio manager Briar Fergusson both went to the boxing courtesy of Westpac.

Westpac also entertained five staff from the debt management office at the 2008 Wellington Sevens.

"There is just no end to it. It just goes on and on and on. Clearly, this is a long-standing practice, particularly around the debt office,'' Greens co-leader Russel Norman said.

Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf has announced a review of the policy for accepting corporate freebies but he has not been available for an interview.

Norman called for an audit of the debt office to prove business decisions were not influenced by the freebies.

He has today written to State Services commissioner Iain Rennie asking for a public sector-wide ruling on what is acceptable.

"At the end of the day, the SSC are the arbiters of the gifting policy for all public servants, including Treasury, so they need to make a ruling for the entire public sector about whether this kind of level of gifting is acceptable in the public sector,'' Norman said.

"What this shows is that it is a very long-standing practice and it goes back to at least 2007. There is pages of the debt management office receiving gifts.''

Rennie yesterday said he had spoken with Makhlouf about the issue and that he was ``satisfied'' the he was managing the matter appropriately.

TREASURY FREEBIES PROVOKE REVIEW

Golf games, movie premieres and vouchers for the capital's top department store were accepted as corporate gifts by Treasury staff, sparking a review of the rules by the new head of the department.

The Treasury has, for the first time, issued a register of corporate hospitality and gifts accepted by staff between July last year and the end of last month.

It reveals that the 24 staff at the Debt Management Office (DMO) have accepted 165 corporate freebies in 11 months.

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One staffer, portfolio manager Matthew Collin, took 36 gifts in 46 weeks, including rugby and racing tickets, a movie premiere, golf, rugby league, Toast Martinborough tickets and several meals.

DMO head Phil Combes took 29 gifts, including dinners and lunches on big banks as far afield as London and Tokyo, and he even went to a pantomime courtesy of the BNZ late last year.

"The NZDMO are going to golf, they're getting theatre tickets, they're getting movie tickets, they're getting endless lunches and endless dinners and other corporate hospitality," Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said.

"They clearly have a conflict of interest in accepting corporate hospitality from the banks because the banks have a completely opposite interest than the taxpayers in this."

Dr Norman called yesterday for an audit of the DMO to demonstrate that business decisions staff made were not influenced by freebies.

Prime Minister John Key and Finance Minister Bill English were both overseas and unavailable to comment and no other minister was prepared to front on the issue.

However, newly appointed Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf – himself a frequent name on the register – has announced a review of policy.

"The Treasury expects all its staff to maintain the highest standard of probity at all times and to judge all offers of gifts and hospitality against the policy, which the new secretary has decided to review," a spokeswoman said.

Mr Makhlouf had also decided to periodically publish an updated register on the Treasury's website to "further promote increased transparency and accountability".

The main donors of freebies were the Australasian banks Westpac (43) and ANZ (34). Barclays Capital (17) and Deutsche Bank (16) were also generous with dinners and lunches. PricewaterhouseCoopers gave Treasury deputy secretary Andrew Kibblewhite tickets to the WearableArt Awards.

A spokeswoman for PwC said: "From time to time our partners and staff liaise with business contacts on a social basis to discuss issues of mutual interest, and we do not consider this to be either unusual or inappropriate."

BNZ said it gave corporate hospitality to "a range of different stakeholder groups without bias or expectation".

Other unusual gifts handed out included concert tickets from Greenstone Energy for Dasha Leonova, an economic adviser in Mr English's office. Mr Kibblewhite was also given tickets to the Royal New Zealand Ballet's Carmen by Meridian Energy, a state-owned enterprise.

And its then communications manager Mike Munro got a voucher to spend at Kirkcaldie & Stains from the Wellington branch of the International Association of Business Communications.

Overall, more than 45 companies, both international and domestic, gave gifts, including more than 17 tickets to rugby games, and tickets to the rugby league and Wellington Phoenix football.

"How do you meet with somebody when you're watching a movie that they've paid for? I don't imagine there is a lot of meeting that happens when you're watching a movie," Dr Norman said.

The Treasury said hospitality was received more regularly by teams who had to keep "ongoing market networks" as a "core component" of their work.

The register required any gift, benefit or hospitality worth more than $50 to be recorded. Where an employee was offered a gift worth more than $100 "which might be seen to compromise their impartiality or integrity, the matter must be reported to the employee's manager or the chief executive, who will make a decision on whether to accept and/or how to dispose of the gift".

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie, who has pushed for more transparency in the public sector, said he was satisfied Treasury was managing the issue properly.

- Stuff

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