SSC must do a full inquiry

Radio NZ reports:

The State Services Commissioner will decide this week whether to launch his own investigation into claims whistleblowers were forced out of their jobs at the Transport Ministry.

was sentenced to three years and seven months in prison in February for stealing $723,000 while employed as a top manager at the ministry.

Several long-standing employees lost their jobs in a 2015 restructure just months after they alerted managers to a fake invoice Harrison presented, and questioned her domestic and international travel.

Last week, the ministry’s new chief executive, Peter Mersi, announced he had appointed an independent investigator to look into claims staff who were raising red flags about Harrison were restructured out of the organisation.

He had previously declined to investigate the matter.

Two of those who lost their jobs have told RNZ News they had no doubt the concerns they raised led to their axing.

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes said the former employees had now asked him to investigate whether they were unfairly forced out.

“I take their concerns seriously and I am currently considering this request.”

This issue will fester away unless there is a comprehensive independent investigation. You don’t need one just because someone committed fraud. But you do need one when the fraud was detected early on and nothing done about it.

The should investigate not just the claims of the whistle blowers, but the entire saga, namely:\

  1. How was Harrison hired, despite a fraudulent background. What reference checks were done.
  2. How often did staff raise issues of inappropriate spending. Who were they elevated to, and what happened
  3. What were the internal controls at the Ministry and why didn’t they work?
  4. What was the rationale for the restructuring that saw whistleblowers lose their job, and who was the decision maker in it
  5. How often did issues around Harrison come to the attention of then CEO , and what did he do

I would also look into the wider performance of Harrison. I suspect she wasn’t just a fraudster but someone who produced nothing of value in her job which was one of those nebulous ones such as organisational performance. How was she regarded by other second level managers and by the third level managers that reported to her.

The SSC inquiry would also mean that it could allow a resolution to the issue of whether Matthews should continue as . It is not in anyone’s interest for this to become a political issue. If the SSC inquiry finds that no reasonable CEO would have acted differently, then Matthews might be able to continue. But if it finds that there were enough warning bells that he should have acted sooner, then I think it would provide the opportunity for him to do the honourable thing.

We do need to be careful not to be too zealous over this and set a bar that any agency that has fraud, should result in the CEO losing their job. That would be silly and unhelpful. But when the CEO’s new role is Auditor-General the bar should be very high, and if elements of the fraud was picked up by staff at an early stage then it does raise legitimate questions.

So having the SSC do a full independent inquiry is the best way forward to protect the independence of the Auditor-General’s Office and to allow a conclusion to be reached.

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