State Services chief surprised by PM's call

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 16:56 04/04/2013

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie talks about the hiring of spy agency chief Ian Fletcher.

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IAIN RENNIE: State Services Commissioner.

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Labour's deputy leader Grant Robertson has written to the auditor-general, Lyn Provost, asking her to conduct an inquiry into the appointment of Ian Fletcher as chief of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).

The hiring of the civil servant to head the GCSB has come under intense scrutiny since it was revealed Prime Minister John Key phoned his childhood friend about the job.

"This is a very serious matter," Robertson said.

"The only democratic oversight of the GCSB comes from the Prime Minister and his story about Ian Fletcher's appointment is changing daily.

"It is completely inappropriate for Mr Key to short circuit proper process and shoulder tap a mate for the job of the country's top spy."

Robertson said the State Services Commision did not follow its own guide for applicants which said short-listed candidates would be interviewed.

The job was never re-advertised after Key "ripped up" a shortlist prepared by a recruitment consultant.

Robertson said the appointment did not "pass the sniff test".

"The only way to clear this up and restore public confidence is for the auditor-general to investigate," he said.

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie today admitted he was surprised Key contacted Fletcher - but has insisted the prime minister acted appropriately.

Earlier today the Greens asked Parliament's Security and Intelligence Committee to investigate the controversial hiring.

'ULTIMATELY KEY'S DECISION'

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie says he was "a little surprised" that Prime Minister John Key telephoned Ian Fletcher about the top spy boss job.

The press conference came as fresh questions were raised about Key's involvement with the hiring of Fletcher, an appointment that has come under intense scrutiny since it emerged Fletcher and Key had known each other since childhood.

Key head-hunted Fletcher to be director of the GCSB in a phone call after a short list of four candidates was rejected in 2011.

Rennie said it was "ultimately" Key's decision to scrap the shortlist of four candidates, but he didn't believe the applicants were up to managing the shake-up they believed the GCSB needed.

"I provided my advice ... while a number of individuals on that potential shortlist were very solid individuals, in my view the change context that GCSB was facing at that time ... meant that those individuals were not best-placed to lead the organisation in the future," Rennie said.

"Ultimately it was the call for the prime minister whether he chose to accept my advice. In this case he did."

Rennie defended taking the names to Key.

"It was important, because this was a ministerial appointment, to keep a high degree of transparency, in front of the prime minister, what the process was throwing up," he said.

He told Key they should see if they could find other "better-suited" candidates.

Once the shortlist was dumped, Rennie and Key discussed what was to happen next. Key rang Fletcher.

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"Mr Fletcher's name was certainly one of the names identified and it wasn't a surprise to me that his name came up," Rennie said

"I was very well aware of his background ... I hadn't expect him [Key] to ring Mr Fletcher directly. He obviously did so.

"I was a little surprised when I had a call from Maarten Wevers."

Wevers – now Sir Maarten – was then head of the department of prime minister and Cabinet. Key had told Fletcher to ring Wevers if he was interested in the job.

Rennie said he expected to "work through" and identify further names.

"My expectation was that the commission would have approached an individual or individuals," he said.

Rennie said he had known about Key's friendship with Fletcher since 2009.

He said that Key's making the phone call "has created perceptions around the process that I don't think are unfair."

"Equally on the other hand ... it is not wrong or unethical for ministers to suggest to individuals that they enter a recruitment process," he said.

"That is the nature of the prime minister's intervention. The suggestion that somehow myself, [and the rest of the panel] are somehow going to be swayed by the prime minister making a phone call ... I think is bizarre."

Rennie defended Fletcher's suitability for the job.

"I do not consider that that background [in the military or intelligence worlds] is essential to carry out the functions of director of GCSB," he said.

"We did not have prescience around the issues that have emerged around the Kim Dotcom case ... but is was becoming clear that there was a need to work on the capability of the organisation."

Rennie said he was disappointed in comments by former GCSB boss Bruce Ferguson, saying it was "not true" that individuals were "dispatched" from the process at a late stage in favour of Fletcher.

Rennie said he had never been pressured by the Government.

"The Prime Minister has always been scrupulously professional in terms of his expectations of me," he said.

Rennie also confirmed that his term of appointment was up in June and he had been involved in discussions with the Government.

- Stuff

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