If he had not already done so, Auditor-General Martin Matthews would have had no choice but to stand aside after the committee of MPs that appointed him agreed to an independent review of his handling of a major fraud case.
Matthews informed Speaker David Carter by letter on Tuesday of his decision. It was already clear by then Carter would have to intervene otherwise. Matthew’s position had become untenable as questions mounted about his management of a staffer who defrauded the Ministry of Transport.
Carter underscored the gravity of Matthew’s situation when he labelled the review as necessary to protect the integrity of the office of Auditor-General.
No one, not even Labour leader Andrew Little who called for the review, is suggesting impropriety on Matthews part.
This is not about Matthews being culpable. He acted properly. But the argument is he acted too late. That would not make him ineligible for almost any other CEO role (no agency is fraud proof) bit I think it does make him ineligible for the role of Auditor-General. It is about the integrity of the office.
Matthews, for his part, maintains that he stands by his actions at the ministry and blames misinformation and media speculation for the need to stand down.
But Matthews is not just any public servant. He is the parliamentary appointed watchdog of tax payer funds. That includes holding agencies and departments to account over their systems of oversight and governance.
It is his stewardship over both those areas that is being questioned after a staffer, Joanne Harrison, committed large scale fraud while he was Transport Secretary.
Allegations this week that two former whistle blowers were later restructured out of the ministry go to the heart of public confidence in the integrity of the public service and New Zealand’s whistle blower laws. The two men allege that senior managers were informed about fake invoices used by Harrison, including a $123,000 payment, and believe that was why they lost their job.
There are now two inquiries underway.
State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes will conduct an inquiry into the treatment of public servants who raised the alarm about Harrison, while the former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Sir Maarten Wevers, will carry out the Parliamentary inquiry.
The public can have confidence in the integrity of both not to deliver a whitewash.
Both highly respected. And while I am sceptical, if the inquiries found that no reasonable person could possibly have detected Harrison’s fraud at an earlier stage, then he may be able to resume his role. But the evidence to date of eight specific complaints or warnings is fairly damning. But there may be abother side to these stories.