Opinion: Auditor-General Martin Matthews right to quit

Joanne Harrison stole more than $720,000 of taxpayers' money when working at the Ministry of Transport.
CHRIS SKELTON/STUFF

Joanne Harrison stole more than $720,000 of taxpayers' money when working at the Ministry of Transport.

EDITORIAL: Auditor-General Martin Matthews simply could not stay in his position.

His decision to resign hours before the expected release of a damning report into the Ministry of Transport investigation into fraud by Joanne Harrison, committed under his watch, was inevitable. In a statement on Thursday Matthews said his position was "untenable". The fact was it was untenable months ago.

Matthews headed the ministry while Harrison was committing a $725,000 fraud for which she was eventually convicted and jailed. Even after being made aware of her wrongdoing, he was still full of praise for Harrison's work as a senior manager within the ministry.

Martin Matthews was chief executive of the Ministry of Transport, then moved on to the position of auditor-general.
STUFF

Martin Matthews was chief executive of the Ministry of Transport, then moved on to the position of auditor-general.

Given the ongoing multiple investigations into Harrison and the MoT, his appointment as auditor-general – a position that requires independent reporting on how your taxes and rates are spent – should never have gone ahead.

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The Harrison affair and its fallout have blighted Matthews' 36-year career in the public service, which included a decade as chief executive at the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, time in the Audit Office, and eight years as assistant Auditor-General in the 1990s, before moving to the Transport Ministry in 2008.

Harrison's fraud has often been described as "sophisticated", but her behaviour and actions were flagged to Matthews multiple times.

Stuff broke the story of Harrison's offending in July last year.  Even after she was found guilty and jailed Matthews said he was comfortable with the way he had handled things.

Then a report by the State Services Commission exonerated the MoT whistleblowers who were made redundant. The SSC said they should be offered compensation for their poor treatment.

 Finally, the hammer blow – the report by Sir Maarten Wevers into how the ministry handled the fraud. The release of that report was blocked on Thursday.

Wevers said "his [Matthews'] resignation therefore brings to an end the matter before us."

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If only it were that clearcut. The convenient timing of Matthews' resignation does not tie this scandal up with a nice, little bow.

The Wevers review was to look into Matthews' suitability for the auditor-general's position, yet none of the details look like they will see the light of day.

One lesson from this "sorry saga", as Transport Minister Simon Bridges has described it, is that high-ranking civil servants on big pay cheques need to be vigilant over the actions of their senior managers.

No-one is coming out of this mess looking good. Harrison is where she belongs – behind bars – for defrauding and misleading taxpayers while in a position of trust.

The MPs who chose to ignore the red flags of Matthews' past should be sighing with relief that the details around their decision to appoint him haven't been made public.

And the decision not to release the full inquiry findings led the Public Service Association to say, "New Zealanders would surely like to understand his [Matthews'] reasons for stepping down, and how much was known about this fraud case during his appointment to the role."

Sadly, and somewhat ironically, that detail will not be accessible under the Official Information Act.

Hardly a shining example of transparency that this case desperately needed for any real resolution to be reached.

 - Stuff

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