Taxpayers pay $1m for spies' sarcasm

STATE COAL company Solid Energy is reconsidering its use of the controversial private investigators Thompson and Clark (TCIL) after they were caught out for a second time trying to use paid informers to spy on community groups.

When the story appeared in the Sunday Star-Times in April, Solid Energy head Don Elder strongly defended the private investigators, but State Owned Enterprises Minister Trevor Mallard urged the Solid Energy board to make the "appropriate decision" about its contract with TCIL. Mallard now says he has been advised that Solid Energy is "reviewing its security arrangements", which means TCIL.

The Sunday Star-Times revealed that TCIL director Gavin Clark had tried to recruit a Christchurch man to spy on the Save Happy Valley environment group, which opposes Solid Energy's coal production, after the government had given strict instructions that such spying cease. The Sunday Star-Times has since obtained copies of "restricted" TCIL reports on Save Happy Valley and other community groups.

The reports consist of unreferenced material from the internet and rough summaries of open sources, interspersed with sarcastic comments about the community groups.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry's director-general, Murray Sherwin, who released the reports under the Official Information Act, said the ministry had stopped buying the reports because they were of limited value to Maf and their "tenor and tone was not appropriate [to be] held and purchased by a public service department".

The reports give an insight into the mentality of the private investigators who market themselves as specialists in "corporate intelligence" about protest groups and into the quality of their work. They are presented in the style of police intelligence reports, with security and copyright warnings at the top and bottom of each page.

The reports, titled "National Extremism", show little evidence of the activist threats the title suggests. One item, for example, says "bio-diesel bus carrying the Be the Change Climate Rescue Tour arrives in Palmerston North fronted by environmental activist and Auckland Save Happy Valley member Jo McVeagh". The tour, sponsored by Greenpeace, Oxfam and Forest and Bird, "aims to encourage individual New Zealanders throughout the country to make a personal contribution to combating climate change". This "intelligence", for which Maf had been paying $1000 per monthly report, was taken straight from a "Be the Change" press release. Thompson and Clark's contribution was a comment about the bus's bio-diesel a by-product of meat production "not [being] the smartest of choices for someone like McVeagh who wants to take the moral high ground" (presumably a reference to her assumed vegetarian beliefs).

A Maf official had annotated the TCIL reports, noting that nearly every item was "legal and public" like the climate change tour. The only illegal activities in New Zealand were "open rescues" at poultry farms.

However TCIL does its best to talk up the idea of extremism and threat, promoting the need for its own intelligence and security services. The reports are peppered with overseas stories of genuinely extreme actions, but the best they can find in New Zealand are ones like the "militant group" Auckland Animal Action that had been investigating conditions on a number of North Island commercial duck farms in 2007.

The Wellington Animal Rights Network had, according to a March 2006 report, the "rather sinister" acronym Warn. The "militant Auckland environment group" ClimAction held a climate change carnival at Western Park with "samba band, food stalls and a bio-diesel powered bouncy castle".

An item on the animal rights group Safe described a complaint to Maf over the size of sow stalls at a Wellington pig farm. It quoted the Safe campaign director saying the group planned to lobby legislators and then TCIL concluded by saying "no prizes for which MPs will be lobbied first" a snide reference to the Green Party. In contrast, National and Act sources were referred to approvingly.

The favourite subject of the reports is anything to do with the small Save Happy Valley group. The state-owned company has paid the Auckland-based private investigators Thompson and Clark nearly a million dollars of state money each year. But again the reports mostly cover innocuous activities such as an International Day of Action on climate change and a working bee weekend at the group's West Coast occupation site.

But wherever possible they paint the group as extreme and threatening, in one case quoting an obscure Act Party blogger as the source.

"Act Party Vice-President Trevor Louden connects the dots between militant anarchists and the Save Happy Valley Coalition in the wake of the October terror raids," TCIL's November 2007 report stated. It said that Louden, "who has done his homework", names four terror raid suspects who have "significant involvement" in Save Happy Valley. TCIL names them.

Louden has maintained files on left-wing people since the 1980s when he ran a group called the Campaign for a Soviet-Free New Zealand. In those days he published dossiers on everyone involved in the nuclear-free movement, declaring them to be communists and "connecting the dots" between them and their supposed Soviet masters.

A range of government agencies employ TCIL and receive these publications. Besides Solid Energy, there are energy companies Genesis and Mighty River Power, Massey University's Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, Crown research institute AgResearch and the part-publicly funded NZBio and Defence Industry Association. That means TCIL is receiving money from several different public or publicly-funded agencies for its National Extremism reports.

Poultry Industry Association head Michael Brooks said the association received the reports for about $250 per month, a quarter of the amount Maf was paying. Massey University confirmed that it subscribed to National Extremism and "keep it under regular review for relevance and value". Genesis Energy said "the publication is mildly useful and serves mainly to alert us to forthcoming events that may impact the secure operation of Huntly Power Station". Mighty River Power said it used TCIL subsidiary ProVision Security's security guards for visits to Mercury Energy customers before disconnections and that unlike the others it did not receive National Extremism. AgResearch said it was not reconsidering its use of TCIL but had instructed it "not to use paid informants for any work related to AgResearch".

NZBio chief executive Bronwyn Dilley said it used TCIL to provide security guards at its conferences. It paid TCIL less than $5000 per year.

While this story was being researched, Clark contacted all his clients recommending the lines they use to reply to the Sunday Star-Times. He warned that I was "ringing around" and what questions were being asked. "We recommend that you respond with the following," he wrote by email. "Yes, you have been using TCIL services. Supply the time frame of the relationship. Do not disclose any financials as this is none of his business and commercially sensitive. Yes, you receive a monthly newsletter. The newsletter is supplied as part of a package of services and its value cannot be separated from the overall package of services."

AgResearch and Genesis Energy replied to the newspaper clearly following Clark's script.

Sunday Star Times