Winston Peters versus ministries and MPs nearing an end

The Winston Peters versus government ministries and heads of departments, and two National MPs, is nearing an end as closing addresses began yesterday.

There is no doubt that Peters’ privacy was breached, but despite Peters making serious allegations and insinuations there is no indication of solid evidence to back up any of his bluster. This looks to me like classic Peters – he has a long history of making accusations and not backing them up with evidence or substance.

Peters claims his reputation was damaged, which is rather ironic given the number of times he has tried to smear the reputations of others over the years, but his own disclosure to media of a seven year overpayment of his superannuation, and what has been revealed due to his own claims and actions in this case, are making it like more of an own goal.

Peters is finding that he can’t get away with bluster and bullshit in court like he has in politics for decades.

The case has proven that he has made false claims, in particular that MSD had conceded they made a mistake with his Super application form – it appears to have has been made clear in court that Peters made the mistake himself and signed in incomplete and inaccurate disclosure. For some reason he disclosed that he was married but separated, but he failed to disclose that he was living in a relationship with Jan Trotman. It was when Trotman applied for Super in 2017 that MSD became aware of the incorrect payments to Peters. They had asked for conformation from Peters that his details were correct in 2014, but he claims not to remember receiving the letter.

Despite all Peters’ insinuations and innuendo the case seems to have come down to whether it was proper for government departments to advise ministers under the ‘no surprises’ practice. Department heads have made it clear that the procedure was normal and proper, and also said that Peters’ claim there was a 3 month pre-election no disclosure period was not based on facts.

Newsroom – Expert surprised by Peters’ claims

Former top civil servant Sir Maarten Wevers has thrown doubt on three claims by Winston Peters that governing conventions were ignored by two chief executives who told National ministers about Peters’ superannuation overpayment.

Wevers, an expert witness called by the Crown defendants in the breach of privacy case brought by the NZ First leader, backed each of the two chief executives’ decisions and conduct in the affair – and told the High Court Peters was wrong on three claims he had made in court.

Wevers backed both Boyle’s decision to brief his minister, Anne Tolley, and Hughes’ decision to brief Paula Bennett.

“A high-profile, notable, and very public figure had received money through the state benefit system that he was not entitled to. That followed an error he had made on a statutory declaration he had made.

“The individual was a former Cabinet minister, sitting senior MP, leader of a political party.

“There were issues in play as to the integrity of the system,” Wevers said.

Boyle had not rushed to judgment, Wevers said, but consulted with the State Services Commission – whose advice was the appropriate “buttress” in such a situation between a department and minister. His briefing to Tolley met expectations and “given what was going on with Metiria Turei, this was a matter with potentially high public interest. “That was the context – if Mr Peters had become public, another MP had received money they were not entitled to.

“Ministers expect to be forewarned about this and to be assured that MSD had handled the matter appropriately and to defuse any suggestion there had been preferential treatment.”

Wevers said in his opinion Hughes’ briefing to Bennett had also been appropriate. “In the same position I would have taken the same course.”

That addresses (and opposes) the main claim by Peters in the case.

Newsroom – Words matter to these civil servants, Mr Peters

Journalists and opposing politicians seldom have the opportunity to precisely fact-check – with access to his documents – claims made by Winston Peters. But one government department has done it.

A Winston Peters interview on RNZ in August 2017 has featured repeatedly in his High Court privacy case.

Peters had denied, to RNZ, a report by Newsroom that he was billed $18,000 by the Ministry of Social Development for the seven-year overpayment, in an interview that also ran in a story on the Stuff website on August 28, 2017.

The MP said he repaid “way less” than $18,000 and then said it again:

“To say I repaid $18,000 is demonstrably false.”

He didn’t pay back $18,000. The court heard, first from Peters on day one and then repeatedly from others, that he repaid $17,936.43.

It was court evidence so is accepted as demonstrably true rather than his claim of “demonstrably false”.

In the same Stuff story, Peters made the following claims, all fact-checked by MSD in preparing for its officers’ time in the court-room. This interview was after he had looked into the problem, had it explained to him and received and paid the invoice for the debt he owed:

– Peters claimed the overpayment likely started in 2013/14. MSD staff and Peters confirmed in court it started on April 12, 2010, the day he applied for it.

– Peters said he had asked in 2017 to speak to the person who dealt with his case in 2010 but that person no longer worked there so couldn’t act as a witness. MSD witnesses told the court the staff member worked in 2017 at the same office, in the same role, and does so until this day. She gave evidence for MSD to defend Peters’ claim. An MSD witness denied Peters had asked her in 2017 if he could speak to that original case manager.

– Peters had said about his repayment: “The reality is a payment like that also attracts interest.” An MSD witness told the court she had seen this claim by Peters and it was wrong. The ministry never charged interest on debts it wanted repaid and no issue of financial penalties would arise unless fraud had been involved, which was not the case for Peters.

– Another MSD witness told the court she had seen in a media report in 2017 that Peters had claimed he had not received the full superannuation because his payment had been “abated”. She said no such abatement existed and the records back to 2010 showed he had been paid the full rate.

– Evidence from the official who dealt with Peters in 2017 said: “I remember reading in the media that Mr Peters was saying MSD had been unable to resolve how the mistake happened. That is not correct. It was very clear to me, which I communicated to Mr Peters in our meeting, that he had been paid the incorrect rate of superannuation as a result of his declaring at question 26 that he was in a relationship and completing the partner details accordingly. He had been paid in accordance with his declaration – as a single person.”

– A regional official said she was aware of Peters’ evidence that his application form was incomplete because he had not ticked a box on his current relationship status. “Based on all my service experience I do not consider the form is incomplete and I am not surprised it was processed in the form. The key information needed to determine Mr Peters’ relationship status was provided, i.e that he was separated.”

– Another official also challenged the claim MSD had made the original mistake. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist at times,” the case manager he dealt with in 2010 told the court. “It was hard to hear that I had made a mistake. I was upset because I knew this was not correct, but I had no way to defend myself.”

– Further, she said media reported Peters saying there appeared to have been an alteration on his application form and no one knew how it had been made. “Categorically, we do not alter forms,” she said.

– Two MSD officials recalled Peters having told media he had dealt, in 2010, with a “very senior” MSD official. The woman concerned told the court: “He referred to me as a very senior person at MSD. I definitely do not consider myself a very senior person at MSD. Case manager is hardly what I call very senior.”

Tim Murphy and Newsroom have been providing detailed coverage of the case (Murphy was originally included in the legal action).

In this story, they alleged Peters had made multiple errors on filling out his form, and dated his signature on it on a different day to that which he claimed. He has also cited in evidence an incorrect and irrelevant statistic about MSD cases involving relationship issues.

In this story, they challenged his claims over an MSD policy and a public service pre-election protocol.

In this story, the court heard three staff from the office at which he applied for super in 2010 would give evidence that Peters attended alone and his partner Jan Trotman was not there. Both the MP and Trotman gave evidence that she was there, but the three officials appeared later in the week and on oath repeated their firm belief that he had been alone at all times.

Yesterday final addresses began – Peters case: The dog that didn’t bark

The lawyer for Crown defendants in the Winston Peters superannuation leak court action says the NZ First leader’s evidence is like ‘The Case of the Dog that Didn’t Bark’.

Victoria Casey QC told the High Court at Auckland in her closing submission on day seven of the case that Peters had made sweeping allegations against the State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes, the former chief executive of the MInistry of Social development and the ministry itself.but had not backed them up in court.

His statement of claim for damages over the leak of information in 2017 on his seven-year, $18,000 overpayment of national superannuation claimed the officials and department had acted in bad faith, but neither Peters’ evidence in court nor his lawyer’s cross examination of witnesses had attempted to confirm that.

The now Deputy Prime Minister claimed the disclosure of the overpayment information was for the purpose of salacious gossip and made deliberately to political opponents before the election but  he had not made the case for any of these central claims. “The plaintiff is required to prove his case,” Casey said.

“This case is, with respect to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the case of the dog that didn’t bark…. The silence is, with respect, resounding.”

Bruce Gray QC, closing for two former National ministers Anne Tolley and Paula Bennett, who Peters is also suing for $450,000 in the breach of privacy case, told Justice Geoffrey Venning: “We have asked ourselves: ‘why are we here’? What is this case about?”

The lawyer said Peters had acknowledged in court he was more sensitive about privacy than many people and his desire for secrecy might have been the reason for his original failure to provide full information about his de facto relationship when applying for superannuation. “He did not feel it necessary to make disclosure of something he preferred” people not to know about him.

The MP had chosen to reveal to the public the fact of his overpayment and the MSD agreement that he should repay the $18,000. That was the reason it became known and had set the tone of media and public commentary. No other publication had occurred, Peters had provided zero evidence there had been ‘social media’ publications about him as he claimed and the fact two journalists had received anonymous calls did not mean a publication was imminent. The calls in themselves were not  evidence of serious harm to Peters.

He said Tolley and Bennett did not even get briefed on the extent of information provided to journalists by the leaker. “It seems they did not know there had been any suggestion at all that Mr Peters had lied, so could not have told anyone that.

“In any event the publication was not highly offensive or objectionable to a reasonable person. Mr Peters is not an objective reasonable person. He is more sensitive than average to privacy matters. His subjective views are not the test in this case.”

Gray told the court: “This proceeding is a defamation case in drag. We still do not know precisely what Mr Peters complains about.

Peters was seeking $450,000 from each defendant. “The plaintiff’s claim in this case is beyond extravagant and is further evidence for the genuine motivation for the proceeding,” Gray said.

“It is a shame this claim had to be made. It seems to arise from an inability to accept a mistake had been made, and a desire to punish.”

Victoria Casey QC, for the three Crown defendants, began her closing late in the day and will finish this morning.

She said: “Something happened that should not have happened. The fact that it did enter the public domain did not establish that the Crown defendants are liable at Common Law and MSD is not liable for unknown actions to the media.”

Peters had conducted the case in a way that made serious allegations about her clients in pleading but did not bring them up personally in evidence or in cross examination. She said to Justice Venning: “We do ask that you pay attention to who was asked what and more importantly who was not asked anything.”

The MP claimed  in the media in 2017 that senior officials had been part of a “cartel playing politics” and that “very senior politicians had been operating outside the law… in tandem with ministers.”

Casey said: “This is the case to which that privilege applied. This is the case where if Mr Peters had any foundation for these comments they should have been brought before the court. We have no evidence whatsoever about a cartel, a conspiracy and no questions to the ministers or chief executives about these claims.”

Despite all Peters’ public claims the case made at court against the Crown defendants seemed to come down to the decision the chief executives took to brief their ministers on the Peters situation after it had been resolved.

“There is no allegation pleaded or in evidence that the plaintiff [Peters] suffered damage from the briefings to ministers.”

In claiming that his reputation has been tarnished Peters himself has taken to court and called into question the reputations of MSD employees, department heads and two MPs.

It may turn out that he has enhanced his own reputation of a blusterer and bullshitter.

Anne Tolley’s reputation has taken a bit of a hit – Minister told husband, sister about Peters’ super

Former National minister Anne Tolley told her husband and her sister about Winston Peters being overpaid superannuation after she was briefed by the head of the Ministry of Social Development.

But most shots fired in court have been blanks or missed their mark.

Tolley and Bennett reject Peters’ claim that under the legal principle of ‘res ipsa loquitur’ or ‘let the thing speak for itself’, Chief High Court Judge Geoffrey Venning should infer they disclosed the Peters’ information publicly.

Gray said: “They resist this. They say that neither of them disclosed the information.”

There has been no evidence produced of who disclosed the private information.

Newsroom – Two ministers and a drunken conspiracy

Could someone from the National Party, stressed, and slightly or heavily intoxicated have told journalist Barry Soper that news of Winston Peters’ superannuation overpayment was about to leak?

That was an implication from a series of questions from Peters’ lawyer Brian Henry in the High Court at Auckland today to former National minister Paula Bennett.

He did not ask Bennett if she was that person.

But when he asked her if she had a view on the “inference” which could be taken from Soper’s evidence on Tuesday that he had been told by someone from National, she answered:

“No. I’ve had many allegations made as to who may or may not have leaked this but I see no more validity in this than any other.”

Henry, who had called the NewstalkZB political editor Soper to give evidence under subpoena, said: “Someone told him about this coming scandal for Mr Peters. Someone he is leaving us to infer is from the National Party.”

It was in Bennett’s cross-examination that Henry, for Peters, suggested a National person had been Soper’s source.

Despite Soper declining in court to reveal that source, Henry told Bennett: “He had been told by a source that we are left to infer was from the National Party.”

Justice Geoffrey Venning interceded to say: “That’s your inference, I think, Mr Henry.”

In politics Peters is big on bark but often without evidence to back up allegations and innuendo and inference.

In court he has barely whimpered, and his lawyer Brian Henry has had a hard job inferring for him with a glaring lack of substance.

Perhaps the dog ate the evidence.

Defence closing submissions will conclude today, and will be followed by the closing submission by Peters’ lawyer.