Phone records given to inquiry

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 17:23 30/07/2013
David Carter
CHRIS SKELTON/ Fairfax NZ
SPEAKER: David Carter.

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Labour leader David Shearer says there is the "smell of a coverup" about a journalist's phone records being handed over to a ministerial inquiry.

Parliament Speaker David Carter confirmed today three months worth of phone records detailing calls between Fairfax journalist Andrea Vance and people within the parliamentary precinct were handed over to a ministerial inquiry.

The revelation is in stark contrast to assurances given last week that Vance's phone records were not supplied.

The inquiry was investigating the unauthorised leak of a report on the Government Communications Security Bureau.

In a statement, Carter said Vance's records were supplied "inadvertently" to the inquiry, which immediately made it clear it had neither sought them nor wanted them.

The release of the information to the inquiry was unacceptable, Carter said.

He apologised to Vance and Fairfax group executive editor Paul Thompson, and acknowledged previous denials that Vance's phone records had been handed over were wrong. 

Shearer told journalists today if the Henry inquiry did not ask for the records "then who did?".

Prime Minister John Key had instigated the inquiry: "So we should be asking Mr Key - did his office ask for them?"

"The fact that [the story] has changed so frequently says to me there is the smell of a coverup."

Earlier, Prime Minister John Key said he was "very disappointed" that the phone records were handed over to the inquiry.

Key said today that Parliamentary Service "got it wrong."

"They made a mistake and they should never have released that information," the prime minister said, but he reiterated that at no stage did the Henry inquiry use the information.

"The Henry inquiry fully understood the breadth of their mandate," he said.

"They didn't access the information, they didn't look at the information, frankly they didn't want the information. Parliamentary Service got it wrong and let itself down."

Key said he had "enormous respect" for the media and believed in the freedom of information.

"We don't think they should be subject to surveillance and they're not."

In a statement issued shortly after his apology, Carter said the release of Vance's phone records was "completely unacceptable".

"The private information should not have been released and could be seen to attack the freedom of the press which is critical to informing the public about what Parliament is doing and ensuring public confidence in Parliament. I view any actions that may put at risk journalist's ability to report very seriously."

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He had instructed Parliamentary Service general manager Geoff Thorn to look urgently at internal controls to ensure such information was not released again.

In response to written questions last week, Carter said a request from investigator David Henry for Vance's phone records had been declined.

Henry, a former top civil servant, had been called in by Key to investigate an unauthorised leak to Vance of a report on the Government Communications Security Bureau.

It has previously been confirmed that Henry was provided with electronic records tracking Vance's movements in the parliamentary complex.

Carter said today he became aware on Friday his answer in response to questions about Vance's phone records was wrong.

Three months of phone records had "inadvertently" been supplied to Henry by Parliamentary Service during the course of his investigations. The information had been collated by parliamentary contractors Datacom.

Henry immediately returned the records without viewing them and made it clear he had neither sought nor wanted them, Carter said.

"I stress that the David Henry inquiry never requested this information and recorded that fact immediately the information was received. I am further advised that this information was not used by the inquiry."

Carter confirmed, however, that Henry had sought phone records detailing which government ministers had phoned Vance.

Fairfax Executive Editor Paul Thompson said Fairfax was "deeply concerned" that sensitive and private information relating to a journalist's phone calls were "so easily handed over" to the inquiry.

"You could drive a truck around the parliamentary rules around the release of this type of information.

"There seems to be a complete lack of understanding among Parliamentary Service staff about the important role the media play in Parliament and their need to do so without fear of being tracked and monitored."

The latest revelations lent fresh urgency to an inquiry by Parliament's privileges committee into the affair, Thompson said.

The committee is looking into access to Parliamentary Service information and security data of MPs and journalists and the potential threat to Parliament's ability to operate.

'IT DOESN'T LOOK GOOD'

United Future leader Peter Dunne, who resigned as revenue minister after refusing to release to the inquiry email exchanges with Vance, said Carter's reassurances contradicted what he was told. Dunne was interviewed on several occasions by Henry.

"I think it is very serious if he is now saying that he didn't seek access to those records when in actual fact he told me when he sought access to mine that he was seeking access to both," he said.

Asked who was telling the truth, he said: "I don't know. I'm simply reporting what I was told.

"I think the question is why does he now say he wasn't after one set of records when he told me that he was. I'm concerned that three months worth of records were being released in any case for an inquiry that was supposed to cover a period of about two weeks."

Asked about Parliamentary Services' role, in at first denying giving those records Dunne said: "It doesn't look good."

He would wait and see what developed before deciding if he would take any more action. He was not aware of any political cover-up.

In a statement Mr Henry, who is overseas, said his inquiry never requested Vance's phone records.

"The inquiry recorded this fact immediately the information was received. Quite simply, we did not request this information; we did not access this information; and consequently we did not use it in any way”, Mr Henry said.

"With regard to the media reports of Mr Dunne’s comments ... I believe that Mr Dunne is mistaken, as I did not request nor was I seeking the phone log records of Ms Vance."

Green party co-leader Russel Norman said he had been asking questions of the Speaker for weeks about the Henry inquiry "and finally it seems we've turned over some of the facts of the matter".

When the Greens asked about Vance's phone records last week "he told us that they had been requested but not provided.

"However the statement he's put out today says they were not requested but were provided," Norman said.

He believed there had been "enormous pressure" from the prime minister's office to make information available to the Henry inquiry.

- Stuff

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