John Palino: why it's time to forget about Len Brown's sex scandal

BEVAN READ/stuff.co.nz

John Palino wants to put the Bevan Chuang scandal behind him as he runs once more for mayor. But will voters let him brush it off?

The Len Brown sex scandal went off like a cluster bomb – a big, messy explosion that flung unexploded ordnance all over the battlefield, ready to take off a passerby's leg if they didn't take care.

The first bang took out Brown himself – outed as a seedy adulterer just days after winning his second term as Auckland mayor on October 12 2013 – but then came the secondary explosions:

The mistress was named and shamed as Bevan Chuang (BANG!). But she said she'd talked to  journo Stephen Cook (CRASH!) and blogger Cameron Slater (KERRANG!) only after being hounded into it by her lover Luigi Wewege (SPLAT!), who was on the staff of Brown's main rival John Palino (kaBOOM!).

One final damp squib (PHUTT!) went off under John Slater, the National Party grandee who'd run Palino's campaign and happened to be Cameron's dad yet knew nothing about the story before he ran it.

After that, commentators and moralists rushed to throw grenades at whichever combatants they liked least. When the smoke cleared Brown was bruised but still mayor, Wewege and Palino were abroad denying everything, and the public was more dispirited than usual at the state of our politics.

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BEVAN READ/stuff.co.nz

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But let's rewind to that kaBOOM – the detonation that appeared to destroy Palino, American-born restaurateur, TV personality and entrepreneur who'd picked up a handy 109,000 votes against Brown's 164,000.

Palino looked a villain because it seemed kinda obvious he must have played a part: Wewege was his guy; Brown's downfall could benefit him. More damningly, Chuang said just after the election, and just before she blabbed to Cook, she met Palino on a Mission Bay carpark and the pair talked for 90 minutes about the affair and how it might still be used to force Brown to step down. She said Palino offered her a job on his team. It sounded really bad.

Except, says Palino, it wasn't true and he wants to set the record straight.

John Palino on Kohimarama beach ahead of his announcement of a new mayoral campaign
Bevan Read/Fairfax NZ

John Palino on Kohimarama beach ahead of his announcement of a new mayoral campaign

He's been quiet but he's not abandoned his dream. He has plans to fix Auckland's congestion, housing affordability, city intensification, unemployment, corruption – the works. He's not a politician but that's a good thing, and he knows about leadership: "I believe in hiring the right people for the job. The mayor is about managing those people." He's publishing a book of his policy prescriptions and on Monday at 2pm in Takanini he'll formally announce his new run for mayor.

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Policies are good, but will anyone listen? Won't he get bogged down answering questions about Wewege? About Mission Bay and Chuang? About the culture within his last campaign? Three years ago commentators said his reputation was shot, so what's changed? Or to put it another way: John Palino, are you fricken serious?

He is. That's why he's talking to Fairfax now (in an interview brokered via Cameron Slater). "I'm sick and tired," he says, "of being tarred with the mayor's affair with his mistress."

He's at the dining table of his cute apartment one road back from the beach in the eastern suburb of Kohimarama on a stinking hot Wednesday afternoon.

"I had nothing to do with it. I didn't have sex with someone. I'm an innocent bystander who said I've got nothing to do with it. I'm sick and tired of the lies that I'm hearing."

He says Auckland needs someone like him. "Someone who's forward-thinking", a fiscal conservative from the centre-right.

John Palino tells Fairfax reporter Adam Dudding about his hopes of getting an old scandal off the table.
Bevan Read

John Palino tells Fairfax reporter Adam Dudding about his hopes of getting an old scandal off the table.

"I have fantastic policies. Very sensible, very commonsense, very sensible policies. It's important people hear those … So one of the things I need to do is get the Bevan Chuang situation out of the way."

Here goes.

BACK TO BUSINESS

When the story broke Palino was in Melbourne with his partner Rose Li. He released a couple of terse press releases saying his hands were clean, turned off his phone and went quiet.

Since then he's been taking care of business. He had some business to deal with in Connecticut then it was back here, where he's been working "110-hour" weeks setting up a new business – the cafe attached to the Kings Plant Barn nursery in Takanini.

He talks fast, with a New Jersey accent softened by 20 years in New Zealand. He waves his hands and fills the gaps in his sentences with a folksily American 'n'-all, as in: "Once they start hearing my policies-'n'-all I'll be able to pull people in..."

John Palino, who on Monday will announce his mayoral campaign, with his partner Rose Li.
Bevan Read

John Palino, who on Monday will announce his mayoral campaign, with his partner Rose Li.

He's 55, smiley, greying, trim, not so tall, with a slightly receding hairline and a tidy suit. From certain angles he looks uncannily like Len Brown. The nose especially is a dead-ringer.

"Oh God! A lot of people tell me I look like Henry Winkler, but …"

Actually, Palino has trouble with that nose. He's had operations, including one where they took the septum out and replaced it with a bit of his rib. It got busted when he was a kid, "sucker-punched from the side". 

He talks about Auckland (I have costed policies"), his favourite politicians (Robbie, John Kennedy and Reagan), his thoughts on Donald Trump (likes him, won't vote for him). But then to the matter at hand: Here's what really happened, according to Palino.

Chuang knew Wewege before the campaign, but it was Palino who hired her on someone else's recommendation, hoping she could arrange Chinese fundraising dinners. She was busy campaigning for her own seat on a local board and ended up doing little for Palino.

On election day they were both losers and she turned up at his campaign party distraught.

"I said, 'Bevan what's the matter?'

"She said, 'Oh I'm just really upset. I don't know what I'm going to do.'

"I said, 'Look I can't talk right now. Do you wanna meet for a coffee?'"

For innocent reasons the coffee date was delayed till evening, so they talked in his car for 10 minutes. His account is interesting mostly for what's absent, and the definition of 'n'-all.

Chuang tells him she's upset because she doesn't know what to do, and he thinks she means career-wise so asks if she wants a job at a fusion Chinese restaurant he's thinking of opening.

Then she tell him she's thinking of talking to Cameron Slater again for his blog.

"And I said, 'About what?'

"And she said, 'Yknow, the mayor-'n'all.'

"And I said, 'Well you don't have a story Bevan. No one cares about it. It's not going to be printed. You don't have any texts or anything.'"

And that, says Palino, "was it'. Next thing he knew she's gone and talked to Slater's reporter Cook about an affair and everything goes nuts.

The point to grasp, according to Palino, is that when they're talking in the car he has no idea whatsoever she's talking about an affair. He thinks she's talking about something he'd known about for a fortnight: that Chuang had been receiving unwelcome attention from Brown. (Scandal aficionados know the backstory is more complex, with mysterious texts to Chuang, Palino and others warning them not to smear Len Brown, and damning Facebook exchanges showing Wewege pressuring Chuang to go public, but it's possible to muddle through without these finer details).

Palino flatly denies he and Chuang discussed forcing Brown to step down. Last week Chuang told Fairfax she stood by everything she's said, but noted that the contradictions may never be resolved: "With a verbal conversation he can't prove anything, and nor can I."

Apart from the he-said-she-said, Palino says the notion of a conspiracy is absurd. First of all, he hates that dirty stuff.

"I used to get people calling me, months before the election, telling me, 'The mayor's having an affair, apparently a story's coming out' and I was like, 'OK, thank you for telling me, but I don't really want to know about it. I didn't want to win that way. That's a horrible way to win."

Horrible, yet text and Facebook transcripts suggest Wewege wanted to do just that.

"He was wrong in doing that," says Palino, "but I have to say he didn't know the full story. Maybe to him it was 'the mayor's acting like a prick to one of our staff members' as opposed to having an affair."

Also, says Palino, why on earth would he encourage Chuang to tell all after the election, when it was too late to matter? The idea of Brown stepping down post-victory didn't even cross his mind until a reporter asked him about it.

"People voted for the mayor. He won and that was it."

And if Brown had quit and Palino had taken over, "could you imagine what that would be like? It would have been a nightmare to be in there for three years knowing you'd got in that way."

Good points, Palino still has a problem. Disbelieve him and he looks Machiavellian, shameless. Believe him, and it seems he doesn't know what was going on in his own tiny campaign team. Enlisting the help of a woman who'd been sleeping with his opponent. Employing a wide-boy with a taste for smear politics. This is hardly "hiring the right people for the job".

"That was the worst thing that I did," says Palino. "I was warned to make sure you really know who you were putting on your team … and that's the one area where I kind of failed."

In light of that, here's an interesting fact: Palino's new campaign manager is Simon Lusk. (It's Lusk, Palino presumes, who got Cameron Slater to approach Fairfax about this interview.)

Lusk's critics see him as unapologetic avatar of the dirtiest of politics. His own website boasts of a track record working "behind the scenes" to "remove" MPs and councillors who have "caused problems". Is Lusk the person Palino needs while still shrugging off his alleged connection to a famous smear campaign?

"I need good people and he's good at what he does," says Palino. "But I don't want any dirty politics. It's not me.

"I need to make sure my team doesn't do things like that. It's up to me."

After Palino announces, there's one more fly buzzing in the ointment. If he garners support, the vote could split between him and the other rightwing hopefuls, handing Labour-backed Phil Goff easy victory. Victoria Crone, especially, is positioning herself to be the right's great white hope.

Sure, says Palino, Crone has "grabbed people already so there's not a lot left for me in Auckland", but he still has the backers and funders he needs. As for splitting the vote, it's early days. No one is really running till July, when you actually sign the candidacy papers. "Till then it's like a primary."

It won't be Trump in New Hampshire, but tomorrow in Takanini Palino'll be on the stump, talking about policies and Auckland, and how he's the forward-thinking fiscal conservative with all the answers.

With a bit of luck, everyone else will be forward-thinking too, with nary a backward glance to the front seat of a car, in a carpark in Mission Bay, late one night in October 2013.

 - Sunday Star Times

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