Editorial: An inquiry into staff conduct at Cera would help allay suspicions

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes
and Michael Heron talk about the SSC report on allegations against former staff ...
MONIQUE FORD/FAIRFAX NZ

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes and Michael Heron talk about the SSC report on allegations against former staff members of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority.

OPINION: Cabinet minister Gerry Brownlee says there is no need for a wide-ranging inquiry into staff conduct at the former Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera). We disagree.

A State Services Commission investigation by Michael Heron, QC, has already found that two officials, Gerard Gallagher and Simon Nikoloff, had clear conflicts of interest in arranging property deals through their own company while they were employed by Cera. Their cases were found to involve serious misconduct and have been referred to the Serious Fraud Office.

During the investigation, Gallagher and Nikoloff told Heron that other people employed by Cera also had "significant private sector interests and dealings". Other interviewees spoke of how Cera staff were expected to use their personal networks while employed as state servants.

This was asking for trouble – it is no wonder boundaries between public duties and private interests became blurred.

READ MORE:

Three more Cera staff under investigation over conflict of interest allegations
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Cera staff committed 'serious and sustained' breaches, investigation finds
Cera staff running own property business on the side

Last week, the chief executive of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Andrew Kibblewhite, told a select committee three other people had been identified as having potential conflicts of interest and are under investigation.

Cera was in existence for five years, from April 2011 to April 2016. It was established from scratch under emergency legislation, was never expected to last, and was staffed in large part by people more used to private sector than public sector norms. Cantabrians initially had high hopes for the organisation, but it failed to deliver on many of its promises.

In retrospect, it is clear Cera had significant problems with its organisational culture.

Its chief executive, Roger Sutton, resigned in December 2014 following a sexual harassment complaint from a senior staff member. A recent report on Cera's performance by the Auditor-General noted numerous issues with Cera's performance, including tensions with the Christchurch City Council, poor communication with the public and a failure to deliver anchor projects on time.

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One of the key areas in which Cera underperformed significantly was in attracting investors to Canterbury. Overseas investors and the diplomatic community have spoken of confusion and difficulty in accessing opportunities in the city. Now we learn that public servants paid to attract investors were also working on their private business. Perhaps more money could have been brought into the region had their minds been a little more focused.

Brownlee appears to have a forgiving tendency towards his former department. For example, he says that the Auditor-General's report was unbalanced, given that Cera had to operate in the wake of New Zealand's most significant natural disaster.

However, this also could be said of other organisations – public and private sector – which responded magnificently to the post-quake challenges, lifted their game and exceeded expectations.

But the issue here is not so much with performance as probity. In Cera's case, two staffers called out in a misconduct case have effectively pointed their fingers at others. Three more are under investigation. A reading of the Heron report gives the impression that Cera did not always conduct its business in the way that New Zealanders expect their public service organisations to operate.

Of course Brownlee doesn't want an inquiry – it's election year. But no doubt many good people worked at Cera, and they will always be under a cloud unless a proper investigation establishes exactly what went on.

 - Stuff

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