Taxpayer paid for Nick Smith's press secretary at National Party dinner

The taxpayer picked up the tab for Housing Minister Nick Smith's press secretary to attend a National Party dinner.
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The taxpayer picked up the tab for Housing Minister Nick Smith's press secretary to attend a National Party dinner.

Taxpayers have picked up the tab for a senior minister's press secretary to attend a National Party dinner.

The Department of Internal Affairs (DIA), which oversees ministerial services, said the payment for Environment Nick Smith's press secretary, was appropriate,

But Labour state services spokesman Kris Faafoi said that while it was a small amount of money, it had stepped over the mark and there was a principle at stake.

"I don't think any taxpayer money should be going to pay for ministers' staff to attend a party fund-raiser."

Documents released under the Official Information Act show Smith's office approved the payment to National after an invoice was sent from the party.

The $55 a head dinner, at National's "Mainland Conference" in Ashburton last year was hosted by regional chairs Ele Ludermann and Roger Bridge.

Faafoi said he had checked with Labour MPs who had been ministers and they said it did not happen in their time.

"There are some things that taxpayer money should be used for, to reimburse staff, but a ticket to a National Party dinner is not one of them."

He said the event "to all intents and purposes was a fundraiser".

Smith may have been there as a minister, but it was a private dinner for National Party members, no media seemed to be invited, and no media reports came from the dinner.

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"Did he need help with his knife and fork? It wasn't something I think that he needed his press secretary at," Faafoi said

"As a social thing, going along with the minister, that's fine. But the taxpayer shouldn't pick up the bill."

A DIA spokeswoman said ministers travelling on ministerial business may be accompanied by a ministerial office staff member. 

"It is our understanding that the staff member in question was accompanying the Minister to a function he was attending in his Ministerial capacity. The staff member incurred the cost of the meal at the function."

She said Ministerial office staff travelling on official business may be reimbursed for their actual and reasonable travel expenses in accordance with the Department's travel policy, including the cost of meals. 

"If it is more practical, payment can be made direct to a supplier. Given the circumstances and the relevant policy the payment was appropriate."

Faafoi said that explanation was "bonkers" and DIA were being "cute" with their explanation

Someone at DIA should have raised a warning flag. "If they think that's okay I don't think it's okay." He queried how often this had happened, if DIA thought the process was acceptable.

He was not sure if the invoice went across Smith's desk, but his office had approved it.

Prime Minister John Key, who is also responsible for ministerial services, said it was quite legitimate to pay the dinner expense because the press secretary was working. 

He said Smith was making a public policy statement at the conference and so he had a press secretary with him.

Key said it was a dinner, not a fund raising event.

"In the end it's like diplomatic protection. They come with me to National Party events and the police will be paying their wages while they are there and they'll be paying any expenses while they are there, because in reality they are working. And that's exactly what this person was doing - working."

But he agreed he would not register his diplomatic protection staff for dinner at a conference. 

He said the dinner was not a fund raising events and the costs were kept to a bare minimum to encourage people to turn up.

"We run fund-raising events at all sorts of other times, but not actually in the food as I understand it."

Smith on Monday defended the payment, but said paying the money to National created a "perception problem".

He said it was not a fund raiser but a reimbursement of the cost of a dinner provided by Hotel Ashburton and there was no profit or gain to the National party

"I was only aware of this late last week ... I do think it creates a perception problem and would have preferred that the payment was made directly to Hotel Ashburton."

He said the party provided morning tea and lunch for his press secretary the next day "for which she was quite entitled to claim but did not, such that the party was probably out of pocket".

His press secretary was with him because he had made a announcement and held a press conference about government policy on earthquake-prone buildings.

In his seven years as a minister it was the only occasion where such a meal at a conference was claimed.

That was because of the government announcement and it was the only practical place to get a meal.

His press secretary could have taken a taxi into Ashburton for a meal instead but that would only have pushed up the cost to taxpayers.

"I'm assuming Mr Faafoi believed I owed a duty for her being away from home to provide her with a meal break."

It was not normal for ministers to pay for the expenses of press secretaries when they were doing government work.

 - Stuff

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