Parata calls meeting over accusations

VERNON SMALL, STACEY KIRK AND TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 18:35 15/10/2013

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Education Minister Hekia Parata has sought an "urgent" meeting with Te Kohanga Reo National Trust Board members following accusations of misspending.

Maori Television's Native Affairs programme has alleged that public funds were misused by Lynda Tawhiwhirangi, the general manager of the Kohanga’s commercial arm Te Pataka Ohanga (TPO).

Tawhiwhirangi’s purchases allegedly included a Trelise Cooper dress, a wedding dress, and a 21st present for a woman who was in a relationship with one of Tawhiwhirangi's sons and had carried out work experience at the trust, and a $1000 cash withdrawal from a BP Connect as koha for a tangi which Tawhiwhirangi did not attend.

The Kohanga Reo trust tried to stop the programme going to air through a court injunction which lapsed last night.

Parata said this afternoon she and Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples would meet with the board at Parliament this evening.

"We will canvas all of the questions, we need to be assured that public monies are being used for the purposes that they were intended and we will be seeking those assurances and we will be discussing the investigations that are necessary."

She wanted to have the meeting before commenting on any potential police involvement.

"First of all I would like to have the meeting and provide the courtesy and natural justice of the board to hear from them."

They would discuss the appropriation of the funds to the Kohanga, the accountability measures for that and the answers to the allegations over spending.

"I need to hear the full picture from them and understand what Government funds are involved and what that means for the relationship between the Government and  the National Trust."

She said they needed to bear in mind that there are over 400 Kohanga around the country catering to just under 9000 children, which was about a fifth of all Maori children in pre-school education.

"And we have had no irregularities reported around that, so we need to be in a position to distinguish between the provision of that service for early childhood and what is happening in the trust.''

Three board members, Toni Waho, Druis Barrett and Tina Olsen-Ratana, arrived at the Beehive this evening, but declined to comment about what they would say to Parata. 

Meanwhile, Labour is taking aim at Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples over the accusations.

Labour Maori Affairs spokesman Shane Jones said Sharples needed to "get off his chuff and do something".

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The Crown Forest Rental Trust was "at war with itself ... and dysfunctional, Maori TV cannot find its feet to get a decent CEO, the Kohanga Reo's gone mad buying books on carnations or something, so they're out for the count, Maori forestry's in a hell of a mess.

''I've never seen a wider array of Maori organisations in a state of dysfunctionalism," Jones said.

"I have never seen a dozier or more dilatory performance from a minister of Maori affairs - never ever."

Jones said the Kohanga Reo needed to bring in a senior partner in one of the big accounting firms to look at the funding and restore the confidence of the volunteers who were crucial to it.

"Unless you can restore the faith in the volunteers I fear that the Kohanga Reo movement might be doomed."
Issues of the alleged misuse of credit cards - something Jones had personal experience of when he used his ministerial card to pay for blue movies - could be tidied up by disclosure and a tightening of policies.

"If the people don't want to give back their credit cards, then they need to hand in their careers."

"Seriously, I have been with Kohanga from day one when we mooted the idea in 1981," Sharples said.

"In my job, I started all the new Kohanga in Auckland, then Kura Kaupapa and whare wananga - all those things, I'm still working in them and I haven't seen Shane anywhere near the place."

When asked whether he would shoulder some of the blame if allegations of inappropriate spending were true, Sharples said: "Why would I do that?"

"I've got oversight for the policy, not for spending money."

He laid that responsibility with Education Minister Hekia Parata.

He said he did not want to pre-empt the outcome of a meeting with national trust managers this week.

"I've got to listen to see what they've got to say. I think clearly, some auditing has to be done.

"I don't want to speculate on what's got to happen, but quite clearly the matter has to be cleared up. We must have a board that has the trust of the Kohanga, who are working really hard for the reo, and I think we can do that."

Labour leader David Cunliffe said an independent inquiry was "absolutely essential" and police should "potentially" become involved.

"I'm not briefed on the extent of the Government's role to date, I do believe that an independent investigation is essential, that should obviously be hands-off from the Government - you never quite know where the tentacles go."

It was "very interesting" that an audit had missed the alleged irregularities.

Meanwhile, the chairman of Parliament's Maori affairs committee, Tau Henare, said the allegations swirling around the Kohanga Reo were "gut-wrenching".

Prime Minister John Key confirmed today Kohanga Reo board members were being summoned by the Government to explain the allegations.

If anyone was guilty of inappropriate behaviour they would have the book thrown at them, he said.

Henare said the allegations were disappointing and gut-wrenching.

"I think questions need to be asked and everyone is waiting for the answers; I know they've got a review going on ... .but for all those whanau out there who struggle to rub a few coins together it doesn't look good."

Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta, who was also on on the Maori affairs committee, said she hoped Parata was "all over this like a rash".

"I'm sure the minister would want to process fully the information and make sure that there is full accountability for spending that has occurred - especially money that's been given for early childhood education.

"I would have though that the minister would be all over this, like a rash, to make sure that every dollar that is given to teaching or children Te Reo Maori is spent for that purpose."

Key said Kohanga Reo's books had been audited regularly in relation to about $79 million received from the Crown. The audits had not raised any concerns.

"There's a wider issue, though, about other money spent and I know other ministers are concerned about the allegations that have been made; they'll be calling in the board this week to talk to them about that and there will be further investigations to see exactly what's taken place. If there are irregularities then I would expect the full force of the law to be applied."

According to Native Affairs, court documents allege the purchases were signed off by Tawhiwhirangi's mother-in-law, Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, a director for Te Pataka Ohanga and a lifetime member of the Kohanga Reo National Trust.

- Stuff

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