List MP Shane Jones has been reinstated to Labour's front bench, but says an investigation into his involvement in an immigration saga has been a "big smack in the chops".
Auditor-General Lyn Provost today released her report examining Jones' decision to approve citizenship for Bill Liu, also known as Yong Ming Yan and William Yan.
She found no evidence of corruption, inappropriate motive, collusion or political interference, but the report was critical of Jones and officials for the slap dash way the situation was handled.
Labour leader David Shearer confirmed Jones would return to the front bench after being cleared, taking up the number seven slot held open for him pending the report. Shearer said he accepted the report in its entirety and supported recommendations to improve processes.
Jones was contrite, describing the report as ''a big smack in the chops''.
"As chastened as I am by this experience, I'm certainly not throwing in the towel."
Jones said the report was a reminder to be "less cavalier".
Asked whether Liu should be a citizen, Jones said: "I made this decision". Although it was made with poor information he could not walk away from it, he said.
In retrospect he could not say how the decision would have gone if he had all the information.
"Both the officials and myself came into a bit of a walloping."
Jones said he made a call based on he information before him, but there were holes in that and he did not ask for further detail.
He had made the decision to award citizenship on "humanitarian grounds".
Just as he could have improved his behaviour, the officials had to take some responsibility, Jones said.
In 2008 Jones, then associate immigration minister with delegated authority, granted Liu citizenship despite Internal Affairs officials advising against it.
Liu, a millionaire Chinese national, was the subject of an Interpol "red flag" notice because Chinese authorities wanted him for alleged embezzlement.
The issue came to the fore again when Liu, a Labour Party donor, was charged in a New Zealand court with passport fraud. He was cleared but Shearer stood Jones down and called for the auditor-general to investigate why the citizenship was granted.
In her report Provost said the events around Liu were "an unfortunate combination of circumstances", but there was no evidence of corruption.
"We found no evidence that any politicians attempted to interfere or apply pressure in any unusual or inappropriate way in the decisions that Department officials made about the management of Mr Liu's file."
However, she found reason to criticise most of those involved in different aspects of the decision-making process.
"In the public sector, decisions not only have to be right, they have to be seen to be right."
Minister of Internal Affairs Rick Barker acted properly but was unwise to sign a standard letter before transfering formal responsibility to Jones.
Officials were under pressure to deal with Liu's application urgently, but this was largely because of repeated requests from Liu's lawyers and from Liu.
The department provided Jones with a formal submission on the application and recommended that it be declined.
"The minister chose not to follow this advice. In our view, the information and advice that the department gave Mr Jones about Mr Liu's application was inadequate."
Liu's application was the first and only citizenship application that Jones decided.
The briefings that Jones did receive about Liu's file were provided by officials with no previous experience of briefing a minister.
Officials left out important information given to Jones so he made his decision without all the important information and without fully understanding all the legally relevant factors.
"Mr Jones had significant concerns about the advice he was given, but did not take steps to clarify that advice with other officials. He also knew that both the New Zealand Police and Immigration New Zealand were still actively investigating Mr Liu, but did not consult those agencies before making his decision."
In line with his usual approach, "he wanted to make a final decision quickly".
Jones did not record the reasons for his decision, and Liu's advisers were notified of his decision before the department so officials could not correct his misunderstandings.
The report found the Liu case exposed potential weaknesses in the way submissions to the minister are handled, "particularly where the applicant is supported by individuals who may have, or be seen to have, the ability to influence the minister's decision".
Recommended steps included ensuring dealings with applicants were recorded in file notes, and that another person was present when ministers met an applicant.
It also recommended a standard form for briefings and decisions to make it ease for ministers to record the basis for their decision.
It found that for his part the then-Immigration Minister David Cunliffe addressed the issues facing him with "considerable thought and care".
"There was no evidence of favouritism or that the minister made the decision for improper reasons."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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