Andrew Little in High Court over defamation claim
A 91-year-old critically ill hotel owner should be allowed to "die with dignity" and have his name cleared over allegations made by Labour leader Andrew Little, a court has heard.
Little was present at the High Court in Wellington on Monday morning for the start of a civil jury trial, regarding comments he made about Scenic Hotel Group founder Earl Hagaman and his wife Lani.
The Hagamans made a $101,000 donation to the National Party during the 2014 election. One month later, the Scenic Hotel Group won a tender to manage the Matavai resort in Niue, which receives funding from the New Zealand Government.
Little has been sued for defamation over a written statement issued to media on April 18, in which he said the donation and subsequent contract award "stink to high heaven", followed by five comments made by Little to individual media outlets making similar remarks.
The Hagamans are seeking a maximum of $2.3 million in damages for the remarks.
Lani Hagaman said the idea to branch out into Niue began in 2009 and was developed by company managing director Brendan Taylor, "our main man really on the ground", while Earl was "not at all" involved.
The selection process for the contract was managed by Auckland-based consultancy Horwath, which was independent from the Government, while the deal had been cleared by the Auditor General in September last year.
Lani Hagaman said Earl had been both critical and complimentary of the National-led government, and believed John Key "had really put tourism in New Zealand on the world map".
The couple wrote out a cheque for the $100,000 donation after National Party president Peter Goodfellow visited their home for an hour-long meeting which included a discussion about the state of the economy and Kim Dotcom.
However, their business aspirations were not mentioned as "it would have been totally inappropriate to raise it".
While the National donation was the largest the Hagamans had made to a political party, they had also given money to Labour, ACT, and NZ First over the years.
Lani Hagaman said the couple were "just devastated" when they were made aware of Little's comments, which made it sound as if they had done something untoward.
"We're very proud of what we do, we're very proud people - our reputation is everything."
She was not happy with an offer from Little in February this year to pay $26,000 towards legal costs which were "well in excess of $100,000". A public apology he had made, saying he accepted "no connection had been established" between the donation and the contract award, was also unacceptable.
"There is no connection, there never was a connection, and with a little bit of investigation and making a few enquiries in April last year without going public, he would have found all of that out."
Her voice caught as she spoke about how "incredibly stressful" the situation had been for her family. Earl, 91, was suffering from heart failure and a pre-leukemic blood disorder, and had broken his pelvis after taking a fall.
"My husband has a matter of weeks to live and I'm sitting in Wellington fighting a battle I should not have to fight at all...and all it would have taken was an apology."
Earl deserved the right to "die with dignity" and have his name cleared, she said.
Earlier, the Hagamans' lawyer Richard Fowler QC said while each of Little's statements was slightly different, the Hagamans argued "the fundamental theme is one of corruption".
Little's high profile meant much attention was paid to his comments, Fowler said.
"If you are the leader of the opposition, people tend to take notice of what you say, particularly the media."
His initial comment was "not a situation where he responds off the cuff to real-time questions", but a media release he prepared and initiated in the expectation it would be picked up by media and widely published.
While Little had made a public apology and made an offer to cover costs, the Hagamans' belief was that it was "too little, too late".
Fowler said the Scenic Hotel Group first became interested in expanding into the Pacific in 2009 - well before making the National Party donation.
After a first phase in 2010 that "seemed to run out of steam", a second phase began in mid-2013 and ended with the award of the Matavai resort contract to the Scenic Hotel Group.
Fowler said the contract award went through an established process for government tenders, which was checked by independent consultants.
The $7.5 million for the resort upgrade was paid to the owners of the resort who employed contractors, and not to the Hagamans.
Fowler said 91-year-old Earl Hagaman was very frail and "nearing the end", and asked the jury how they would feel to be confronted with a "slur" on their reputation at that stage of life
"We only have one reputation, and once it's lost it's very very difficult to recover, and sometimes impossible."