Tearing up the town

MARTIN VAN BEYNEN
Last updated 06:41 31/03/2013
Staples
John Kirk-Anderson/FAIRFAXNZ
Crusader: Whistleblower Bryan Staples says he won’t shut up if he thinks people are getting a bum deal from EQC.

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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The man who revealed embarrassing EQC leaks says he's not a fighter by nature, but, as he tells Martin van Beynen, he's sick of how Christchurch's quake victims have been treated.

Talk. This man can talk. Perhaps it's because he's Australian.

Or maybe it his Sri Lankan, Polish and Irish heritage.

Bryan Staples is New Zealand's man of the week and, although initially reluctant to enter the fray in a public way, he says he is enjoying his 15 minutes of fame.

Staples, 54, who has spent most of his life in Brisbane where he worked as an insurance loss adjuster, is the man to whom a senior Earthquake Commission (EQC) manager sent, by accident, a potentially explosive email and spreadsheet containing a wealth of material on 83,000 Christchurch earthquake claimants.

Since the Monday leak, New Zealand has got to see and hear quite a bit from Staples, and many would be struck by the colour, fluency and brazenness of his statements.

Some might find him rabid, others would say he displays a refreshing passion and chutzpah not usually associated with the classic Kiwi personality.

Last week, for instance, as he talked in a Christchurch cafe, he spoke of his plans to put coffins outside his office in Fitzgerald Ave. Three black ones would symbolise, he says, the three Christchurch people he knows who committed suicide after soul-destroying encounters with insurance companies and EQC.

Another bunch of coffins would be adorned by graffiti applied by local "kids" to symbolise how the earthquakes and the aftermath will affect future generations.

"It's not really about us any more," he says, downing his cappuccino.

As he puts it, EQC could not have sent the email to a worse person. He has been a caustic critic of EQC since he left the organisation in February last year, just not in public.

The email gave him yet more ammunition - and a public platform - to boost his depiction of EQC as incompetent, untrustworthy and self-serving.

EQC is justifiably sensitive about the information, for reasons quite apart from the fact the breach was a massive leak of private information. Had it gone to a friendlier party, the public may never have known about the leak.

The most sensitive part of the email was a spreadsheet with a column showing EQC's cost estimate of repairs to the claimant's house.

In the wrong hands the information would water down EQC's bargaining position with contractors, and if householders knew the figure they would be loath to settle for less.

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Unfortunately this appears to have been the case, with Staples giving two examples of clients who were given cash settlements significantly less than the EQC estimate as shown on the leaked email.

The Press newspaper will be investigating these cases over the next week.

When Staples first received the email he thought the sender, EQC claims process Manager Susan David, was "jumping ship" because she was fed up with her employer.

He agreed to delete the email but by then four or five others had seen the material and he cannot be responsible for them, he says. "I'm surprised EQC never asked me who else had seen or had access to the email."

The subtext of course is clear. The content of the email is out there somewhere, although as far as Staples is concerned he has done all he promised in a statutory declaration he signed on Tuesday.

EQC has laid a complaint with the police, although the nature of the complaint is unknown.

It is probably an allegation Staples has appropriated confidential material and made a false declaration, which is an offence under the Crimes Act.

STAPLES CAME to Christchurch two days after the September earthquake in 2010 and hit the ground running. He was one of about 30 Australian loss adjusters who had been trained by EQC in anticipation of a large-scale New Zealand disaster.

He was told that disaster was likely to be an earthquake in Wellington. Once he started in Christchurch, it wasn't long before he was wondering if EQC managers were actually more interested in a "cushy racket than doing the right thing by the people of Christchurch".

"I wasn't well liked because I kept asking questions. I vividly remember one EQC manager saying to me, 'we're going to make this gig last. Just get a pencil and paper and do as you're told'."

So why didn't he just take the $75 an hour and perks and keep his mouth shut? Why, in fact, did he not, on leaving EQC, keep his head down and make money by working with EQC. Staples says he is not a fighter by nature.

"I've never been in a physical fight. I've won all my fights by 100 yards. But I can't shut up if I think people are getting a bum deal. I worked for EQC for six months but became sick of the nepotism, cronyism and psychopathic behaviour of the people in charge. I sort of had an epiphany and thought I could help the people of Christchurch get their entitlement from EQC and the insurance companies."

He and his associates now employ about 45 people, he says, and he makes no bones about the fact he wants his business to make him money. However it's a struggle. He claims EQC owes his company, Earthquake Services, about $700,000, although EQC says the work Staples undertook was unauthorised and now needs to be checked. "Thank God for the ASB and BNZ," he says.

BRYAN WAS brought up in a non-religious, Liberal-voting household with his mother a nurse and his father a fruit and vegetable wholesaler. His Dad kept a photo of Margaret Thatcher, herself the daughter of a grocer, on the wall.

"They were always helping people. We didn't get Christmas presents. On Christmas morning we all went down the Salvation Army or some such outfit and helped with giving out food."

He laments the fact EQC/EQR hubs are now surrounded in barbed wire to repel outraged residents.

"I want to know what happened to the Anzac spirit we saw after the earthquakes. I was just amazed when I got here how people helped each other. And look at that beautiful spirit we saw with the student volunteers. We want to set up outside each hub and invite people to tell us their stories, and we will give them an Anzac biscuit and a cup of tea and listen to them."

Calling himself the Robin Hood of Christchurch, Staples says he has watched EQC destroy its brand by taking on responsibilities it never needed to.

"EQC's role should never have been to compete with insurance companies doing assessments. EQC should have captured the high moral ground early and taken a stance defending the rights of Cantabrians against the multi- national insurance agents. All EQC had to do was set up a cheque writing service and deal only with insurance companies."

The commission should also have established a crack team of loss adjusters, engineers and quantity surveyors to investigate any claims and hold insurers to account, he says.

He has said all this before, he says, in letters and emails to EQC, but it has fallen on deaf ears.

After the email leak, Staples is a man EQC can no longer ignore.

- Sunday Star Times

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