Defamation trial, Hagamans v Little – $2m

The defamation trial that Earl and Lani Hagaman have taken against Andrew Little begins today in the Wellington High Court.

NZH: Defamation trial against Labour leader Andrew Little to begin

Earl and Lani Hagaman have sued Little for defamation and Lani Hagaman will begin her evidence today.

The jury trial is set down until Friday and witnesses include Hagaman’s wife Lani, daughter Toya and National Party President Peter Goodfellow.

Others include Scenic Hotel managing director Brendan Taylor and Terry Ngan, who was at hotel consultancy firm Horwarth which managed the contract tender at the time will also give evidence.

Last week, Little did offer a full apology but Lani Hagaman said it was too late and the court action would proceed.

It was actually on the Friday of the week before last week that Little went public with his attempt at an apology.

UPDATE:  Lani Hagaman gives evidence at defamation trial against Labour leader Andrew Little

Hoteliers Earl and Lani Hagaman are seeking up to $2 million in damages from Labour leader Andrew Little in a defamation suit against him.

Whew!

The Hagamans’ lawyer Richard Fowler said Earl and Lani Hagaman claimed Little had repeatedly defamed them in a press release and six media interviews he did last year about a $100,000 donation from the Hagamans to the National Party in 2014 and a contract awarded to their hotel chain, Scenic Hotel, to manage the Matavai resort in Niue.

The Hagamans were seeking an optimum award of $500,000 each for comments made in a press release by Little soon after a RNZ news story reported on the timing of the donation and the awarding of the Matavai contract.

The couple is also seeking $100,000 each for separate comments made in each of five interviews broadcast after that, a total of $2 million, with a further lower amount of exemplary damages.

Eye watering.

Lani Hagaman began her evidence today, saying Earl Hagaman was not at court because he was critically ill and doctors believed he only had weeks to live.

Lani Hagaman now had power of attorney along with the family’s lawyer.

She had decided to continue to pursue the defamation suit to clear his name.

“We reached the decision Earl’s name needs to be totally cleared from any [claim] of corruption and Earl needs to be able to die with dignity.”

That puts an added complexion to the case.

Fowler said the Hagamans had rejected a last-minute offer of $100,000 in costs and an apology from Little because it was “too little, too late” and by then the costs were far in excess of what Little was offering.

More details of the proceedings at the Herald link.

I’ll add to this post if there are more reports on the trial today.

Hide: “Niue deal squeaky clean”

Rodney Hide writes in the Herald that Niue deal squeaky clean.

He acknowledges that he has known the Hagamans for two decades.

I should say at the outset that I have known Earl Hagaman and his wife Lani for 20 years, that I greatly admire them for their business success, what they provide New Zealand, their philanthropy and their integrity.

The Electoral Commission shows that Lani Hagaman donated $35,000 to the Act Party in the year leading up to the 2014 election.

Hide points out that the donation to National (as for the ACT donation):

…the Hagaman donation was correctly registered and made public, as the law requires. There was nothing underhand or secret.

And Hide blasts Andrew Little.

Labour Leader Andrew Little this week got the political blunderbuss out and blew off both feet and then his arms. He never grazed his target.

In my view, his was a disgraceful display of nastiness and political incompetence not expected of a rookie opposition MP and gobsmackingly awful for a would-be Prime Minister.

He summarises the Niue deal:

The Government did the resort’s development to boost tourism to Niue, which has doubled. The project is regarded as a success. The development benefits the Niue Government and people, not Scenic Hotel or the Hagamans.

In 2013 Auckland firm Horwath HTL did an independent review for the board and, among other things, recommended the appointment of a hotel management company.

The following year, on behalf of the board, Horwath ran an Expressions of Interest and Request for Proposals process that culminated in the consideration of two proposals with the recommendation of Scenic Hotels. The board agreed.

Hide names the board members: Ian Fitzgerald (chair), Bill Wilkinson, Toke Talagi (Premier of Niue) and John Ingram.

So the Premier of Niue is implicated, along with three others.

The transaction was not just arm’s length, several oceans of separation lay between the political donation and the management contract. There is no evidence of impropriety. The process would appear a model of probity.

Hide thinks Little is not the same model of probity.

Meanwhile, Little has besmirched a successful and highly regarded business couple, a New Zealand business success story, senior government officials, his own MP’s dad, and the Premier of Niue.

Politics can be nasty. It’s often incompetent. Somehow Little has managed to plumb new depths.

Time will tell whether this latest strategy of leading attacks is going to turn around Little’s and Labour’s political fortunes or not.

Will Little score a hit by firing a blunderbuss of nails at the National Government’s coffin hoping one might find a target and stick? Or has he nailed his own?

“Dangerous territory for Little”

Andrew Little’s insinuations of impropriety that implicate the Scenic Hotels company and Niue resort trust and board members have ventured into dangerous territory according to Tracey Watkins in Smoke and fire or smoke and mirrors?

Little is right when he says that it is his role as Opposition leader to ask questions when a big political donor is awarded Government contracts.

But suggesting it “stinks to high heaven” takes things to a different level.

Even if there hadn’t been a number of steps between the minister and the decision to award the contract, Little’s claim appears to rest on the assumption that everyone involved in the process – from senior diplomats, to government agencies and senior politicians – was either swayed by the donation, or leaned on by the minister.

In the absence of a whistle blower, or any documentation, leaked emails or other evidence so far to support that view, that’s a pretty serious accusation. Seemingly, it relies solely on the fact that Hagaman donated money to the National Party.

This is dangerous territory for Little.

Directly getting involved in dirty politics – making serious insinuations but having little or no evidence of impropriety – might have been standard tactics for a blogger but is dangerous territory for a major party leader.

Political donations are a murky area and it is easy to score quick political hits off those who make them. The number of donors appearing in the yearly list of knights and dames makes most of us cynical about both regimes. So too the number of corporates who regularly show up as political donors. People would more likely believe in the tooth fairy than think you can get something for nothing, particularly from politicians. So suspicion, particularly about policies benefiting party donors, is healthy.

For sure.

But our donations regime is at least more transparent than it once was. If anything, the Hagaman donation proves the disclosure regime is working as intended.

Little hasn’t revealed any political secrets, he has pointed out two publicly known dots and suggested they are joined.

So Little was right to ask the question but wrong to leap to judgement before the Auditor General decides even whether to take a look.

If every big donation is going to be decried as dodgy there seem to be only two alternatives – either barring donors from tendering for Government contracts, which is probably unworkable, or a fully state funded regime, which is where the first option ultimately leads anyway, given the inevitable drying up of campaign funds.

But State funding opens a whole other can of worms, one that comes at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to taxpayers.

It’s also just as likely to become a football and just as open to abuse.

Anyone who doubts that should cast their mind back to the Labour pledge card scandal of a few years back.

Which is the other problem with where Little may be going.

The public’s suspicion about wealthy donors is probably only rivalled by their scepticism over politicians putting their hands out for more money.

So what were the reasons for Little’s attack?

Was it an attempt to scare donors away from  National?

Is it a sign that Labour are struggling to get donations from companies so don’t care about scaring them off political donations?

Or was it just an attempted political hit job? To try and plant seeds of bad political perceptions? Or a gamble, hoping that something might be flushed out of the woodwork?