Little apology, too late?

Andrew Little out this out via Labour Party press release today:

Andrew Little
Leader of the Opposition

MEDIA STATEMENT

24 March 2017

Statement re Earl Hagaman

In June last year, Mr Earl and Mrs Lani Hagaman issued defamation proceedings over media statements I made about the award in September 2014 of a hotel management contract in Niue to the Scenic Hotel Group (in which they were shareholders and directors) followed by a $7 million upgrade.

It was a matter of public record that Mr Hagaman had donated $101,000 to the National Party in that same month. This generated considerable media interest. As Leader of the Opposition, I considered I had an obligation to respond to media questions on the issues which related to government actions. I referred the matter to the Auditor-General because I believed the public was entitled to be reassured. My focus was, and has always been, on holding the Government to account.

Throughout, the Hagamans have vigorously maintained there was no connection between the award of the contract to Scenic and Mr Hagaman’s donation. The Auditor-General did not establish any connection.

In those circumstances, I thought the matter should be resolved. Over the last three months, I have made a serious effort to do that. Today I want to publicly apologise unreservedly to Mr Hagaman for any hurt, embarrassment or adverse reflection on his reputation which may have resulted from my various media statements. I have offered that apology to the Hagamans. I have also offered to make a substantial contribution towards the Hagamans’ costs; an amount I am advised, was greater than would likely have been awarded by the Court.

My offers of an apology and redress have been rejected and the matter will now have to be resolved in court. That is unfortunate. I strongly believe everybody’s time, not least the Court’s, could be better used.

I want to make it clear that the object of the criticism was the actions of the National government and that I intended to reflect no impropriety on the part of Mr Hagaman. I accept that no connection has been established between the donation and the award of the management contract and the hotel upgrade.

I propose to make no further statement until the proceedings are resolved.

The Hagamans have responded:

HagamanOnLittleApology

He has belatedly apologised, sort of. He makes excuses.

He seems to be blaming Mr Hagaman for not settling, and a week before it is due to go to court plays the ‘wasting court time’ card.

The apology looks more like a political statement than contrition.

This looks very messy for Little.

Background detail at Stuff: Labour leader Andrew Little headed to court over defamation case

Past posts on this:

Little misses apology deadline

Andrew Little has not apologised by the deadline given by the Hagamans of Scenic Circle so the message to him is “see you in court”.

Stuff: Andrew Little refusing to apologise over his comments about a Niue resort deal

Little looks set to face defamation proceedings after ignoring an ultimatum and failing to apologise to the Hagamans.

In a statement from Lani Hagaman she said she would “see Mr Little in court” after he failed to retract and apologise his comments that a Niue resort deal they were awarded “stunk to high heaven”.

Little has written to Hagaman’s lawyers saying he has a “constitutional duty to challenge the actions of the Government over the expenditure of public funds”.

He will address the issues with the Hagamans once the Auditor-General has dealt with his request, either by “concluding an investigation or declining to conduct one” regarding a Niue resort deal.

The Hagamans said they hadn’t received anything from Little or his lawyers by 5pm – the deadline set by the Hagamans a week ago.

That’s confusing, saying the Hagamans saying they hadn’t received anything from Little or his lawyers, but saying Little had written to the Hagamans’ lawyers.

Regardless of that, no apology means Little faces defamation action, a higher risk than a back down and apology.

He may or may not get to choose the timing. Delaying it until election year may raise the risks.

A Little defamation?

Last month Labour leader Andrew Little made some controversial comments about Scenic Circle being granted a contract to assist management of a resort in Nuie, saying it “stinks to high heaven”.

NZ Herald reports: Hotel chain’s ultimatum to Andrew Little: You have one week to apologise

Last month, Mr Little compared the Scenic Hotel Group’s resort contract with what he described as the Government’s “dodgy deals” with SkyCity casino and a sheep farm in Saudi Arabia.

“New Zealand money, which was earmarked as aid for the island nation, has instead been given to upgrade a resort run by a National party donor,” he claimed.

Mr Little said at that time that the close timing of the donation to the awarding of the contract “stinks to high heaven”.

The Matavai is owned by the Niue Tourism Property Trust on behalf of the Government of Niue, which owned the resort before then.

But yesterday…

Earl Hagaman, the founder of the Scenic Hotel Group, said Mr Little had a week to retract and apologise for comments he made last month about the management of a resort owned by Matavai Niue Limited.

Mr Hagaman and wife Lani Hagaman said that after seeking advice, their solicitor had notified the Labour leader today that defamation proceedings would ensue “unless the position can be properly retrieved”.

Lani Hagaman said their lawyers had confirmed their view that Mr Little’s allegations were “false and defamatory”.

“We are asking for a full retraction and apology because no one should be verbally attacked and denigrated because they believe in democracy and the right to make their own unsolicited political choice on who they want to give a donation to,” Lani Hagaman said.

“The decision to make the donation was completely unsolicited and was Earl’s personal decision and nothing to do with the Scenic Hotel business.”

Lani Hagaman criticised Mr Little’s use of his Parliamentary role to attack their business.

She said her and Earl did not “come from power or privilege” and had strived to give others a livelihood and provide support to regional economies “where other big hotel chains won’t invest”.

“The position Andrew Little holds is one of power and privilege. It should be a privilege to be elected into Parliament and work hard for the people of New Zealand, rather than to cast unjustifiable slurs on people because they have made a donation to the party of his prime political opponent.”

Little has confirmed and responded:

Mr Little said he had received a letter from the Hagaman’s lawyer this morning. He was now “considering the issue and taking advice”.

He added: “I will not be restrained from undertaking my constitutional role of calling the government of the day to account.”

At that stage at least he didn’t seem to understand that the Hagamans were holding the leader of the opposition of the day to account

 

But Little appeared to later reassess his situation:

VanceLittleDefamationResponse

Vance tweeted after a press conference two hours later:

Little says he’s taking legal advice and he’ll respond by the deadline (next Friday).

But says he won’t resile from his duty to hold Govt to account. Won’t answer question about standing by statements.

Little seems to be confusing holding the Government to account and holding himself to account.

He has go himself into a very awkward situation here. He has recently taken to talking tough and has been called out for allegedly stepping over the line.

Taking a step back and apologising seems to be difficult for him. But not apologising risks dragging this out over the next few months and possibly in to election year.

This holding to account thing can be tricky when it rebounds.

See also: Little takes advice on defamation threat

Scenic Hotel company versus Andrew Little

Founders of Scenic Hotel Group, Earl and Lani Hagaman, say they would welcome an Auditor General investigation into allegations and insinuations made by Andrew Little, and they are considering legal action Little’s comments.

NZ Herald: Scenic Group founders consider legal action

The $101,000 donation was made on 18 September, the last week of the election campaign in 2014. A month later Scenic Hotels won a contract to manage the Matavai Hotel on Niue, which is owned by a trust appointed by Foreign Minister Murray McCully on behalf of the Niue Government.

Mr Little said the timing “stinks to high heaven” and wrote to the Auditor General last week asking for an investigation into the donation and the handling of the contract, which was signed between Scenic Hotel Group and the hotel board in October 2014.

The Auditor General is yet to decide whether to investigate but in a statement, the Hagamans said they would welcome an investigation from the Auditor General and would cooperate fully.

“In fact we request that an investigation occurs urgently in order to remove any doubt about the integrity and honesty of our name,” said Mrs Hagaman.

Lani Hagaman said the management contract for Matavai Resort Niue was gained by Scenic Hotel Group in an open and contestable process against other hotel groups.

Mrs Hagaman said it was a “political beat-up” by Mr Little.

“We are not interested in being Mr Little’s political football. These nasty and unfounded allegations need to stop and I would urge Andrew Little to stop wasting tax payer money on trying to promote his own political party and ego.”

This is a fairly predictable response to Little’s attack.

His insinuations suggested collusion between the National Party, Murray McCully, Scenic Hotels and the board members of the Niue Tourism Property Trust (including Jacinda Ardern’s father, ex policeman and New Zealand High Commissioner to Niue) in the awarding of a contract.

Ian Fitzgerald, the chairman of the Matavai Niue Limited which runs the Matavai has also now spoken, saying he would have “absolutely no concerns” if the Auditor-General looked into the process.

Mr Fitzgerald is one of four board members appointed by the Niue Tourism Property Trust to oversee the running of the hotel, which $18 million of New Zealand aid money has been invested in. The agreement was negotiated and signed between Scenic Hotels and the board rather than the Trust itself. Mr Fitzgerald said he was unaware Mr Hagaman had donated to the National Party and the board had only dealt with Scenic Hotels Group’s managing director, Brendan Taylor. It was in contract negotiations with Scenic Group for six months before the contract was awarded – well before the donation was made.

This confirms some obvious timing issues with Little’s claim – a one month timeframe from donation to awarding of the contract, suggested as a coincidence of concern, seemed far too short to have credibility.

In a statement, Mr Little said he was pleased the Hagamans would fully cooperate with an investigation. “The public deserves full transparency on this issue given National’s largest financial donor gave the party $100,000 during a tender process, then a month later his company was awarded a major government contract. The public must have confidence that the process led by Murray McCully was above board.”

Little is still digging – digging at McCully and digging a dirty politics hole.

If the Auditor General decides to investigate and finds impropriety in the awarding of the contract then there could be serious repercussions for McCully, who has signalled his exit from politics next year anyway.

If no problem is found this will not look good for Little, at a time that his credibility as a potential Prime Minister may come under increasing scrutiny and pressure.

Little has provided no evidence of impropriety, he has just made very strong insinuations in saying the timing “stinks to high heaven”.

Winston Peters gets away with this sort of dirty politics quite often but it is remarkable for a Labour leader to directly involve themselves in an attack like this.

This was a very risky move by Little, following an attack on tax expert John Shewan last week. It could be make or break for his leadership and possibly for his political career.