Asher Emanuel writes at The Spinoff:
The lobbyist who served as the prime minister’s closest adviser during the early days of the coalition government appears to have failed to comply with commitments he made to disclose conflicts of interest on an ongoing basis, according to documents released to The Spinoff under the Official Information Act.
Gordon Jon (GJ) Thompson, who founded lobbying firm Thompson Lewis in 2016, was appointed interim chief of staff to the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, shortly after the formation of the government in late 2017 to help set up the new administration. Thompson’s appointment was short-term, to stand in for Mike Munro who was unwell at the time. After four months in the role — during which he had access to all Cabinet papers and was involved in the appointment of over 100 ministerial staff — Thompson returned to his firm to lobby the government on behalf of private clients.
The prime minister recently told parliament that the potential conflicts of interests were managed because Thompson was subject to codes of conduct and signed a declaration about conflicts of interest.
But documents show Thompson’s initial disclosure to Ministerial Services didn’t identify the firm’s clients and suggest that Thompson failed to comply with the undertakings he had made in the declaration to keep Ministerial Services informed on an ongoing basis about potential conflicts of interest, raising questions about a breach of government rules around conduct in the public service.
Now newspapers ran major headline stories when John Key’s Chief of Staff merely had a holiday with a lobbyist. Here you have a lobbyist as Chief of Staff, who apparently never notified Ministerial Services of any specific conflicts of interest.
Without having seen a list of the firm’s clients, and in the absence of Thompson alerting Ministerial Services to any real or potential conflicts related to clients as they arose, it is difficult to see how the prime minister’s office or Ministerial Services could identify or manage any conflict between the interests of his firm’s clients and the interests of the government.
This is the issue – how were the conflicts managed?
Companies Office records show that he did not resign his role as director. A company law expert told the Spinoff it is not possible to take a “leave of absence” from a directorship and that Thompson’s legal duty to act in the best interests of his company would have persisted during his employment as chief of staff.
“A directorship exists independently of an employment relationship. Of course a director might also be an employee and as an employee might take leave (paid, unpaid, whatever) from the employment role,” said Victoria Stace, a company law lecturer at Victoria University.
“But they remain a director and you cannot be a ‘sleeping director’. As a director you retain all the duties under the Companies Act until you resign as director.”
And this is the real problem. GJ should have stood down as a Director while serving as Acting Chief of Staff.
The prime minister recently defended her continuing relationship with Thompson after his work for Huawei became public, saying that New Zealand is a small country and “overlaps” are inevitable.
“The important thing,” she said on One News, “is that we manage those conflicts.”
But how were they managed? It is very opaque.
Again think if the situation was reversed. Say Simon Bridges became Prime Minister and appointed Matthew Hooton as his Acting Chief of Staff for six months, with Matthew remaining a Director of Exceltium while hiring all the Beehive staff and seeing all Cabinet papers. There would be non-stop media coverage.