Roger Sutton and his dramatic downfall
The complainant at the heart of the Roger Sutton harassment allegations described his behaviour as unacceptable for someone in a powerful position, it has emerged.
Sutton resigned on November 17.
Sources have indicated the complainant decided to make a stand after her tolerance reached breaking point, after which Sutton tried to make amends. The backdrop to the complaint, meanwhile, included some tensions in Cera while another senior staffer played a role in the investigation.
Senior staff members from the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) approached the State Services Commission (SSC) with concerns about Sutton's behaviour 10 days before a formal complaint was made.
The formal complaint included allegations that the behaviour made the complainant feel "upset and vulnerable" and also "sick, angry and exploited".
Yesterday the SSC, which has been blocking questions about the investigation, released details into its handling of the complaint under the Official Information Act. It also announced a wide-ranging review into the way it deals with workplace bullying.
State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie said in a statement yesterday the SSC had commenced work on a review of the current guidance to the state services around bullying and harassment following the Sutton complaint.
"This work will be incorporated into the current work with the Public Services Association on workplace bullying," said Rennie, who has faced calls to resign from both the Opposition and a Government minister.
He defended the investigation, despite confirming for the first time that it had been kept deliberately narrow.
Rennie said using a formal complaint to broaden out an investigation "is not fair to either party [Sutton or the complainant]".
Yesterday's statement revealed that on September 15 the commission was approached by "senior staff members of Cera who raised general concerns about Sutton's behaviour".
Then 10 days later a formal complaint was made, sparking the high-profile investigation.
After a seven-week investigation and negotiations with Sutton, the Cera chief executive resigned and was allowed to give a press conference in which he described his behaviour as "hugs, jokes".
Yesterday it emerged that Sandi Beatie, the deputy commissioner who led the investigation into Sutton, is retiring in early 2015.
In his statement Rennie said: "(Beatie) ... did not focus on just narrow issues and if she heard matters that suggested harassment then she was mindful those issues should be investigated at the same time".
Paula Bennett, the State Services Minister, has not seen the commission's report into Sutton, but is accepting assurances from Rennie that his investigation was robust.
She reiterated her confidence in Rennie yesterday.
Rennie, who has refused to give interviews for more than a fortnight, earns more than $600,000 a year.
The State Services Commission refused to comment beyond its statement, which it claimed was its final word on the matter.
Richard Wagstaff, national secretary at the Public Service Association, which represents thousands of public servants, welcomed SSC's review of procedures, saying his organisation had been pushing for the move for about the past two years.
Wagstaff said he was not familiar with the details of the investigation, but generally did not believe investigations into employee conduct were always confined to a formal complaint.
"It is certainly not uncommon, if there is a complaint about somebody's behaviour, for an employer to do a wider investigation to see if there's a problem."
Legal commentator Catriona MacLennan questioned whether the investigation was properly broad.
The SSC had alluded to an approach by more than one staff, and Sutton himself acknowledging that he may have hurt "other women" in his November 17 press conference.
Christchurch is rife with theories about why Sutton fell so spectacularly from grace.
They range from his behaviour being worse and more widespread than disclosed, to him being the victim of political intrigues and a "nest of vipers" within Cera.
The theories are fuelled by an equal number of opinions about Sutton the man.
At one end of the spectrum is former Cera communications staff member Tina Nixon who posted this message on her facebook page after Sutton resigned from Cera on November 17.
"Just for the record people - Cera was a robust environment......So do people really think that a hug was what it was all about? I call on all journalists to apply some logic to this and get past the breathtaking PR snow job perpetrated by the self serving egotistical dictatorial narcissistic nasty prick Sutton is. Then start asking some very hard questions of SSC, as no woman in the public service should currently feel confident that any complaint would be investigated professionally and without bias."
Ironically Nixon, who left Cera earlier this year for a position with the Masterton District Council, was herself involved in a complaint against Cera in which she was accused of bullying a female colleague.
The complaint was made in the context of a wider personal grievance claim against Cera which the organisation settled with a payout of about $5000 to the complainant.
Nixon said she believed some allegations were made during the personal grievance process but "HR did nothing further". Nixon said she was not disciplined in any way.
There were, of course, more flattering views about Sutton.
The Canterbury Communities Earthquake Recovery Network, for instance, wrote Sutton an open letter after the resignation.
". . .you have been a man of and for the people and even with the obvious constraints of being CEO for a government organisation you have kept the people front and centre," the letter said.
"You told it as it was - the good, the bad and the ugly, and you told it loudly, clearly and without even a touch of PR, spin, bureaucracy and filtering...our speech and access to Cera was never conditional."
Sutton's public image was the envy of any politician but behind the scenes, things, as they always are, were complicated.
He had an, at times, difficult relationship with his Minister Gerry Brownlee, who is said to have curtailed some of Sutton's initiatives, and despite his popularity with the public, Sutton was not as universally loved by staff.
His manner was a talking point in some groups. The wild-card, outrageous Sutton brand, which worked so well in certain settings, was a disaster waiting to happen in other areas.
He was a flirt, he made personal remarks and he talked about intimacies best reserved for very close friends.
He touched your hand, your arm. He was promiscuous with his hugs. He goofed around, made tasteless jokes and could come across as flippant and patronising.
His wife, journalist Jo Malcolm, tried to rein him in. Other women who had his interests at heart told him his behaviour was unbecoming. He seemed unaware of the potential effect of his behaviour and backed himself to stay out of trouble. But trouble was brewing.
One senior female Cera staff member - referred to as X in this article - was not enamoured with his over-familiar behaviour and her tolerance threshhold, according to those close to her, was reaching breaking point.
Although she made no mention of it to him, she found some of his conduct sexist and demeaning.
Apparently X decided to take action after a junior female staff member told her Sutton had approached a group at Cera's 2013 Christmas party, to suggest every Friday being a visible G-string Friday.
X, according to friends, was shocked and felt it unacceptable for someone in Sutton's position to speak to young staff in that way. The staffer however did not feel unsafe and she did not want to make a complaint because she was afraid of being painted in a bad light.
Not all in the group who were there for the G-string Friday incident saw it in a negative light. Another female staff member recalls the incident as fairly innocent fun.
The conversation, she says, started with Sutton telling a large group about cycling behind a large woman and seeing her G-string underwear.
Then the group had a ribald conversation, which got more ridiculous, and Sutton suggested, jokingly, having "G-string Fridays", she says. No-one appeared to take offence and anyone could have left the group if they wished.
However X decided she needed to take a stand and outlined her concerns to a senior Cera manager on September 15. Some incidents from the previous three years were mentioned.
These included overly intimate hugging, calling her "honey" and "sweetie" and making lewd comments relating to what sort of men she found "hot".
Some have expressed surprise X tolerated the behaviour for three years before taking action. She is known as a strong, intelligent and forceful person.
Why, for instance, had she not mentioned her discomfort to her manager or Sutton himself?
Her manager was to end up as her support person throughout the complaint process.
Insiders say there were niggling tensions between Sutton and X's unit within Cera before the complaint.
Sutton had questioned some of the spending by X's unit (he did the same with other units) and had discussed X's stress levels with her manager. He was also perturbed by what he thought were leaks from Cera to Brownlee's office. This did not win him any friends and helped fuel irritation between Sutton and X's unit.
X's partner, a highly skilled outside contractor, was also a major supplier of services to X's unit although Cera says this potential conflict of interest was rigorously managed and X had no part in decisions regarding the purchase of his services. Sutton had raised some issues about the spending.
Those close to X scotch any suggestion she had any ulterior motive. Allegations of malice and other agendas are not uncommon as a tactic to undermine complainants in sexual harassment allegations.
Sutton's seniority and popularity with the public as well as with many Cera staff made him a daunting target for even the strongest woman. What is clear, however, is that by the time X made her initial complaint the relationship between her and Sutton had soured.
Friends say the souring was entirely due to Sutton's behaviour over the years.
"She reached breaking point. She knew the s...t she would take," a friend says.
After X made her complaint, senior Cera staff members approached the the State Services Commission (SSC), Sutton's contractual employer, asking for informal assistance. During the approach on September 15 this year, they stressed no formal complaint had been received.
Sutton was summoned to Wellington to talk to State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie and his deputy Peter Martin.
Sutton was not told the identity of the complainant.
Rennie treated the complaint as delicate and serious but the feeling in chief executive circles was that Sutton could be managed through a process acceptable to X.
One of Sutton's senior managers would later say, according to insiders, that when Sutton came back from Wellington he told her he thought a particular staff member had made the complaint.
She was disappointed he was going on a sort of "witch-hunt" and she spoke to another staff member saying she believed Sutton would go looking for the person who had complained.
Sutton also told his senior leadership group, which included the complainant's manager, about the complaint and how upset he was about it.
It's understood X began to think her complaint would not be taken seriously and decided by September 25 to escalate to a formal one.
In a formal complaint letter on 25 September, X expanded on her concerns and distress.
Insiders say she described the hugging as "full body press" and recalled an incident where Sutton had hugged her when she was distressed over a friend's misfortune.
"I will not forget how disgusting that made me feel . . . yet I have always wondered if I had imagined it or overreacted," she is understood to have said in relation to the incident.
"This is a common feeling with all instances and I feel guilty for thinking ill of Roger."
The lewd comments were about who she considered attractive, friends say.
She knew Sutton was being jokey but when the remarks were made about random people, she believed they had a sexual overtone.
Friends say she sometimes felt silly about feeling uncomfortable but felt singled out.
X said she was making a stand for other women in the Cera workplace, particularly the "young women". She now saw the behaviour as a pattern of conduct and she feared other women did not know if they were safe in making a complaint."
After hearing the complaint had turned into a formal process, Sutton sent an apology letter to X through Rennie and requested a meeting where he could apologise in person.
The letter was returned and no meeting was held.
Rennie commenced a formal inquiry on September 29. He appointed one of his deputies, Sandi Beatie, a career public servant in her 60s with a formidable reputation, to investigate the complaint.
Beatie was a deputy chief executive at the Ministry of Justice and in 2010 was seconded to the Department of Corrections to lift departmental performance and to introduce private sector management into New Zealand's prison system.
The SSC has not disclosed her terms of reference, but The Press understands Beatie kept the inquiry narrow and was able to confine her interviews to Sutton, X and one other witness, a senior Cera staff member, because Sutton accepted his conduct had been inappropriate.
Information about the investigation released by the State Services Commission yesterday, says Beatie considered whether any witnesses or further interviews would assist, but was also mindful "of not using the investigation as a general fishing expedition".
Beatie interviewed X in Christchurch and Sutton, now represented by Auckland employment lawyer Penny Swarbrick, flew to Wellington for his interview in early October.
In the interview he disputed some of the details of the allegations by X but struggled to remember the incidents brought up. X's memory was sharper. For instance, about an incident outside Fiddlesticks restaurants where he was alleged to have asked X if she thought the men outside Fiddlesticks were "hot" and "sexy", he thought he was referring to their Italian suits.
The hug, which caused so much offence, had happened when his PA suggested he go to X's unit where he was told everybody was in tears over some bad news the unit had had. In relation to other allegations, he admitted calling women "honey" and "sweetie" and making inappropriate jokes.
The other staff member was also interviewed but did not initially want her interview to be made part of the record or included in the report.
She then changed her mind and allowed her interview to become part of the inquiry. In her interview she disclosed Sutton called her "my dear" as a "term of endearment" which she said was annoying when he did it in front of people at meetings.
Sutton had a habit of wanting to sit next to her when she was briefing him but their legs had not touched. She preferred sitting across the table from him. He had on occasions put his hand on her arm and she didn't like him encroaching on her body space.
She had first noticed X wanting to keep her distance from Sutton at a mock press conference in August or September. The mock conference was to prepare for the announcement of the assimilation of Cera into the Department for the Prime Minister and Cabinet under chief executive Andrew Kibblewhite. That was the first time she had experienced his inappropriateness to other people.
She also talked about a remark she said Sutton had made about the Prime Minister's wife Bronagh Key.
She reported Sutton had sat with Bronagh at the lunch for the announcement of the transition.
As she and Sutton were walking out with Kibblewhite, Sutton had said something along the lines of "Bronagh and I are like this and you'd go there wouldn't you".
She had made a joke of it and told Kibblewhite that as well as managing Sutton on a day-to-day basis he was going to have to manage Sutton from getting closer to the Prime Minister's wife.
Kibblewhite subsequently denied hearing any such remark about Bronagh Key and Sutton denied making it.
Beatie then submitted her first draft report to the parties for comment. Swarbrick made pages of submissions on the draft report arguing the threshold for sexual harassment had not been reached.
This was an important argument for Sutton because once the threshold was reached, the conduct would automatically go from "ordinary misconduct" to "serious misconduct".
Swarbrick told The Press sexual harassment was serious misconduct under most codes of conduct and covered behaviour from putting up a rude calendar to sexual assault.
"The definition of sexual harassment is incredibly broad," she says.
Beatie's report found Sutton's conduct did amount to sexual harassment which justified a final warning. She stopped short of recommending dismissal. She mentioned being persuaded by factors such as Sutton's behaviour not being raised with him, the complaint being the first and only complaint, his lack of deliberate intent and being unaware he was causing offence. She was impressed by his genuine remorse and his commitment to change. (Sutton had started seeing a psychologist straight after hearing about the informal complaint). While saying it was not an excuse, she took into account his move from a masculine private sector environment to the public service.
Beatie recommended ongoing monitoring, a review of Sutton's behaviour by an independent party after several months and mediation between X and Sutton.
By November 14, Beatie had completed her final report, which was not and still has not been provided to X or Sutton.
Sutton's comments to The Press two days before his resignation on November 17 and then at the press conference do not need traversing in this article as they are already well known.
Clearly the way Rennie handled the press conference and the statements made left him open to the accusation he was treating Sutton more favourably than the complainant and therefore sending entirely the wrong message to potential complainants of sexual harassment.
What is also known is that the SSC briefed Sutton very carefully on what he could say to the media to protect the confidentiality of the settlement reached with him. The settlement did not contain a generous severance payment as some speculated. He was expected to stay on as chief executive until January 31 and would receive his standard superannuation entitlements and holiday pay.
Rennie was advised not to hold a joint press conference but it at least provided the SSC with a measure of control. Whatever option Rennie chose, Sutton and his wife were always going to garner the lion's share of the media coverage on the day of the press conference.
The resignation news was an "absolute shock" to many staff at Cera, a senior manager says.
Another former staff member says Sutton seemed the most unlikely sexual harasser.
"He was just too much of a dick. Cera was full of young women, pretty women. But I never saw Roger do anything sleazy."
By Tuesday or Wednesday the ground had shifted with Sutton being accused of using the press conference to minimise his conduct and soften the impact on his reputation and future employment prospects.
Rennie, however, was the main target, with attacks coming from all quarters including unions, commentators and the Prime Minister.
In another development during the week, Rennie received a letter from lawyers from two Cera staff expressing concern about the narrow scope of the inquiry.
The two senior Cera staff had either witnessed the events alleged by X "and/or have direct knowledge of other incidents alleged to be sexual harassment," the letter said.
"In fact one of our clients, (when interviewed by Beatie) provided details of a number of other sexual harassment allegations relating to Mr Sutton....," the letter said.
It strongly criticised the press conference, partly for the opportunity it provided Sutton to run a "comprehensive PR campaign".
The lawyers suggested their clients would go public if Rennie did not publicly confirm the inquiry's findings, make arrangements for Sutton to remain away from the workplace until he left his employment and provide a copy of the final report to all those affected in the investigation.
By the week's close, Rennie was calling Sutton's conduct "serious misconduct" a detail ommitted from the original press conference and statement, and Sutton, now accused of breaching his agreement with SSC over what he could say about his resignation, was gone.
* * *
No doubt more details will emerge about the saga. The SSC must still answer questions about why it has not released the final report to the parties.
The material already in the public arena shows the saga was far from simple.
Although neither Sutton nor X would be interviewed for this article, it's known both feel fairly shattered by the last few months.
It won't be much consolation the saga acted as a catalyst to shift workplace relations and that the it started a useful countrywide discussion about sexual harassment.
- The Press