EQC 'failed' to give top engineer support

MARTIN VAN BEYNEN
Last updated 14:16 29/08/2014
Reid Stiven
KIRK HARGREAVES/FAIRFAX NZ

DISAPPOINTED BY COMPLAINTS: Reid Stiven said EQC was under huge pressure due to the scale of the disaster in Christchurch.

Heidi Gwynne
KIRK HARGREAVES/FAIRFAX NZ
'HOW CAN YOU TRUST HIM?': Heidi Gwynne told the committee Robinson had come to the assessment of her Fraemohs house believing it did not deserve to be fixed.
Graeme Robinson
Kirk Hargreaves
EQC ENGINEER: Graeme Robinson arrives for the second day of his discplinary hearing.

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Controversial Earthquake Commission engineer Graeme Robinson is sorry he has contributed to pressures on people who complained about him, his lawyer says.

Robinson is facing complaints from 11 Canterbury homeowners claiming he was incompetent in his assessments and unprofessional in his manner.

The complaints are before an Institution of Professional Engineers (IPENZ) disciplinary committee chaired by Peter McCombs sitting in Christchurch. The hearing concluded this afternoon with the panel reserving its decision.

After earlier questioning the jurisdiction of the committee to hear the complaints, John Morrison, counsel for Robinson, told the committee in closing submissions his client regretted his contribution to the stresses of the complainants.

"In each case it has been unintended and an unintended consequence.''

Morrison said none of the complaints could be supported either because they had not been made out and or because they were wrongly processed by IPENZ.

Robinson's primary responsibility was to EQC and he had done over 2500 assessments, drawing few complaints.

The complainants overstated Robinson's role and had an incorrect idea of EQC's responsibilities. It was unfair to criticise responsibilities which had not been assumed or were warranted.

The IPENZ investigators had not produced statements from the complainants of evidentiary quality and not advised Robinson of the claims until they had drawn conclusions.

Morrison said complainants had been given leeway to state their complainants whereas Robinson had been restrained.

Media publicity about the hearing was a one-way street.

The focus on Robinson's bedside manner was surprising given the potential consequences to Robinson's reputation, he said.

Answering questions from the disciplinary panel, Robinson said he was independent from EQC and had first worked for EQC in 1987.

His contract had been renewed each year and he had had an ongoing engagement with EQC since 1997. His contract had no scoping document and did not specify rates of pay.

His work was peer reviewed in the context of a number of complaints to EQC and not only in the context of complaints to the engineer's registration authority.

Robinson said he had raised concerns about his workload and backlog with EQC and these were addressed by the establishment of Fletcher EQR technical hub.

He had an engineer seconded to him and now EQC had engaged another engineer.

He regarded reviews of his work within EQC as peer support and many of those engineers providing review had supported him at the hearing this week.

"I've been humbled by the support I've had here."

ENGINEER LACKED INTEGRITY

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This morning, the hearing heard from Reid Stiven, EQC's general manager Canterbury home repair programme, who said Robinson was required to deliver hard messages to anxious customers with high expectations.

In a final submission, Diamond Harbour homeowner Heidi Gwynne told the committee Robinson had come to the assessment of her Fraemohs house believing it did not deserve to be fixed.

He had refused to review independent reports she had obtained using her savings, and despite his report EQC had settled her claim, which ended up over cap, this week.

His assessment had been brief and he lacked equipment to pick up bowed walls and walls out of plumb. If her house had been fixed according to Robinson's recommendations it would now be unsafe, Gwynne said.

She was normally a laidback person but his actions had caused her sleepless nights.

"If it's one thing I can't stand it's a lack of integrity. This man has displayed that in all my dealings with EQC.''

The engineer had a strong presence within EQC and had abused his power.

"I think it's disgusting.''

Robinson has lied to the committee, she said. He now said he knew nothing about a leaky deck on her house but she remembered him being on the deck and saying the leak was due to poor maintenance.

He was trying to evade responsibility by bringing evidence he was a minor player in the assessments.

"Robinson was the top dog. Everyone was subservient to him. He was the one who said I would only be getting a cash settlement. It shows to me he is lying.

"How can you trust him to be safe with other people?''

The engineer had showed self pity rather than remorse, she said.

'PEOPLE OF NEW ZEALAND NEED TO BE CONCERNED'

A complainant in the hearing earlier characterised Robinson's manner as a "mother telling a child''.

Hugh Bigsby, in a final submission, said he took issue with the belief complainants couldn't take hard messages and they were shooting the messenger.

All the complainants had experienced hard messages before and accepted them if they were reasoned, well thought-out and respectful.

People got upset when a professional acted like a "mother telling a child" and gave a message without substance.

As for shooting the messenger, "we need to accept in many cases Robinson writes the message not just delivers it".

Marg Bigsby said that despite Stiven's submission Robinson was only used when parties were deadlocked, in their situation no disagreement had existed before Robinson's visit.

In a final submission, complainant Mark Tierney, an aircraft engineer, said there was also no disagreement in his case until Robinson intervened.

Robinson had talked to another EQC engineer while on site and and then telephoned his office telling them to "pull payment" and to call Reid Stiven for confirmation.

"You will never hear from him again,'' Robinson had said about the other engineer.

If the committee did not find Robinson guilty of unprofessionalism and very poor ethical behaviour "then the people of New Zealand needed to be concerned when the next sad event happens because he is coming to see you".

"The New Zealand IPENZ have to stop slapping dangerous engineers over the wrist and charging them nothing and IPENZ have to take all the responsibility on themselves."

Another complainant Andrea Laws said her case was not at an impasse when Robinson arrived.

As a result of his assessment EQC had backed out of previous statements to find their damage was cosmetic only.

ENGINEER SENT INTO CONFLICT SITUATIONS, SAYS EQC

The Earthquake Commission failed to provide its allegedly bullying engineer with the support he needed, a disciplinary committee has heard.

Reid Stiven, EQC's general manager of the Canterbury home repair programme, said EQC was under huge pressure due to the scale of the disaster in Christchurch.

Robinson was always sent into situations where customers were already at an impasse with EQC and, regrettably, these customers had often not had a good experience with EQC.

In normal events, Robinson would not have any "interface" with the customer and he should have been part of a team of three EQC staff.

When this did not happen, it was "my failing, EQC's failing, we didn't provide Graeme Robinson with the support.''

He did not know if Robinson had training in dealing with people in stressful situations.

The engineer was given a huge workload and did not get the support he should have received, Stiven said.

It was sometimes extremely difficult delivering a message the customer does not want to hear, he said.

Robinson was EQC's lead consultant engineer but not employed by it. EQC did not expect full engineering reports from him and was engaged on a claim-by-claim basis.

Stiven said he was disappointed some complaints heard on the second day of the disciplinary hearing had not been dealt with by the EQC complaints procedure or mediation.

Robinson was not expected to provide geotechnical reports and he was disappointed the IPENZ investigators had not sought clarification on matters before the disciplinary committee.

- The Press

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