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Call for auditor-general over 'money for mates'

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 05:00 25/07/2012
GRANT ROBERTSON
JONATHAN CAMERON/Taranaki Daily News
GRANT ROBERTSON: Wants the auditor-general to investigate "money for mates" allegations made over fees paid to environmental consultants.

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Labour MP Grant Robertson is to call on the auditor-general to investigate "money for mates" allegations over hefty fees given to environmental consultants.

Documents released under the Official Information Act reveal Environment Ministry officials felt pressured into allocating money to the Mackenzie Sustainable Futures Trust.

They felt the scheme - set up to resolve disputes between farmers and environmental groups in the area - was too expensive and raised concerns about the high level of fees paid to consultants.

About $88,000 went to Ecologic, a firm run by Guy Salmon, a friend of then-environment minister Nick Smith. The trust was chaired by National MP Jacqui Dean.

Dr Smith gave the trust $100,000 early last year and it then applied for another grant of $200,000, which officials declined. Dr Smith eventually over-ruled the decision and awarded an extra $80,000.

In September Ms Dean wrote to the ministry asking for "security of funding".

It prompted director of operations Martyn Pinckard to email deputy secretaries Sue Powell and Guy Beatson: "Now they are looking to get more cash from CEF [Community Environment Fund] and pressure us into a quick decision."

Documents also reveal the process rang alarm bells within the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry.

In July, director Mike Jenson emailed senior officials in both departments after reading a briefing from Mr Salmon.

He wrote: "I may be being overly cynical but this looks to me like Guy is positioning them for the soft option - asking Central Govt [sic] to pick up a big chunk of the tab for the conflict between environment and economy in the Mackenzie.

"This will be problematic if Guy gets everyone to agree [except Govt] that Govt needs to bare [sic] some of the costs then present this to ministers."

Mr Robertson grilled Prime Minister John Key in Parliament about the allegations yesterday.

Mr Key has said his officials had had a "quick look" and he was not concerned.

Mr Robertson said the "investigation . . . was a joke," and failed to ask obvious questions. He is to write to Auditor-General Lyn Provost to ask her to investigate.

An independent panel turned down the application for funding "as part of an open and competitive process . . . That should have set off alarm bells for the prime minister."

Ms Powell wrote that “we [ministry] remain deeply concerned at the level of professional fees being paid into this process; some of the costs charged also have us concerned.”

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Mr Robertson said this was a "significant comment from a senior official", and deserved more than "a cursory look from the prime minister.”

- Fairfax Media

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