Prime Minister John Key says he simply forgot - but critics have accused him of "lying by omission" and "misleading the public" over the appointment of spy boss Ian Fletcher.
The Dominion Post revealed yesterday that Mr Key shoulder-tapped family friend Mr Fletcher for the job to head the Government Communications Security Bureau in a phone call.
Four other shortlisted candidates with military or intelligence experience were rejected. Mr Key did not reveal this crucial detail when he was grilled over his role in the appointment by journalists and in Parliament last week. Yesterday when asked why he had not mentioned it, he said: "I'd forgotten that at that particular time."
Opposition politicians greeted the memory lapse with scepticism.
Labour's deputy leader Grant Robertson said Mr Key "lied by omission" and said his explanation was not credible. Green Party MP Steffan Browning said Mr Key had misled the public.
Mr Key has played down his relationship with Mr Fletcher, saying last week he "vaguely" knew him. He told reporters his only role in Mr Fletcher's appointment was to accept a recommendation from State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie.
His intervention came when Mr Rennie rejected the shortlist, prepared by recruitment consultants. Mr Key said he and Mr Rennie then had a "brainstorming" session in which two names were floated - Mr Fletcher and that of another candidate.
Despite his insistence that he had seen Mr Fletcher for just two business breakfasts and a lunch, Mr Key said: "I know his number."
He told Mr Fletcher to talk to Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet head Sir Maarten Wevers about applying. Mr Fletcher was the only candidate interviewed by a State Services Commission-convened panel - which included Sir Maarten - but Mr Key has insisted his own intervention did not hold sway.
"There's quite a proper process that we go through. The fact that I might talk to somebody makes no difference . . . there was a full board of people that looked at him and they thoroughly recommended him," he said yesterday.
"It's not unusual. It's not like I went and appointed the guy."
He also rejected the suggestion that the director of GCSB should come from an intelligence or military background. Former GCSB head Sir Bruce Ferguson said the standard process of appointment was not run as normal.
He said he was aware of one of the candidates, who was "eminently suitable" for the job. Sir Bruce, also a former Defence Force chief, headed the bureau for four years but his term of appointment was not continued by the Government in 2011.
Last week, Mr Rennie put out a media statement to provide "further detail" on the appointment process. The statement made no mention of Mr Key's involvement.
But Mr Rennie's office could not provide answers to questions last night. Mr Key denied he had asked Mr Rennie to release the statement.
Labour will lodge a breach of privilege complaint today against Mr Key for misleading Parliament over his answers during question time last week.
WHAT THE PM SAID
March 27, in Parliament: "I knew Ian Fletcher. I went to school with his brother . . . I cannot recall particular occasions [of contact since schooldays]; I am sure I may well have done so." Said he "vaguely" knew Mr Fletcher. "I haven't seen the guy in a long time."
March 28: "In the last few years when he was the head of what is the equivalent of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise in Australia I had a couple of [breakfasts] with him."
April 3: "Despite what people say, I don't know Ian that well. I'm much more friends with his brother but not with Ian . . . "
On the appointment:
March 27, in Parliament when asked by Labour MP Grant Robertson what role he played. "His appointment was made by the state services commissioner . . . "
March 27, asked what part he played in the appointment: "Only that the state services commissioner came to me with the recommendation. That's normal."
March 28: "I didn't undertake the recruitment, that was fully done by the State Services Commission."
April 2, in response to questions: "[I] rang Mr Fletcher and said that if he was interested in the position of director, GCSB, he would need to go through a process and should call Maarten Wevers."
April 3rd: "Iain Rennie, State Services Commissioner recommended him to me . . . I rang [Mr Fletcher] and said ‘Look, you know, you might be interested." Asked again who first suggested Mr Fletcher: "Iain Rennie put it to me." Pressed to clarify, he said: "I would have mentioned it to him, I'm sure," and then: "I'm sure I probably would have."
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