An official inquiry into Government use of private investigators has been expanded to include the entire state sector, after revelations of more ties between agencies and the firm.
State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes says there are “serious questions” to be answered, with both the Ministry of Primary Industries and the NZ Security Intelligence Service launching internal inquiries into the conduct of their employees.
The State Services Commission first launched an inquiry into Crown-owned company Southern Response’s use of private investigators Thompson & Clark on March 18, following allegations it had spied on Canterbury earthquake victims.
Just over a week later, Hughes widened the inquiry’s scope to cover MBIE’s relationship with Thompson & Clark as further reports on Government use of the spy firm came in.
That inquiry has been broadened further, with Hughes issuing a statement expressing concerns about “what has surfaced in the inquiry to date and new information now available relating to other Government agencies”.
“What I have seen raises serious questions about the nature of engagement between Thompson & Clark and state sector agencies,” he said.
Hughes said he had widened the inquiry to cover all state sector agencies, citing the need for assurance that the use of or contact with external security firms by Government agencies was in line with the state services code of conduct.
He has also appointed barrister Simon Mount QC to support initial inquiry head and former deputy state services commissioner Doug Martin.
Hughes said the inquiry would likely take several months more to complete.
The fresh information was revealed in Official Information Act requests to the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) and the NZ Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS).
In response to an OIA request from RNZ, the NZSIS confirmed it had interacted with Thompson & Clark regarding its protective security services, and released emails showing a number of informal meetings between the firm and NZSIS staff.
SIS staff helped firm find work
The emails include a number of occasions where the NZSIS staff appear to have helped Thompson & Clark find work.
In a letter accompanying the emails, NZSIS director-general Rebecca Kitteridge said the tone of some “raise[s] concern about the standards of professionalism being displayed”.
Kitteridge said she had launched an internal investigation into questions of conduct and possible bias in favour of Thompson & Clark.
She had also asked for the NZSIS’s internal processes and policies to be reviewed to ensure its engagement with private firms was “professional, appropriate and even-handed”.
Kitteridge said the NZSIS had never procured any services from the company.
In a statement, MPI’s acting director-general Bryan Wilson said the ministry had uncovered evidence of “potential serious staff misconduct” from years ago, involving employees who no longer worked for MPI.
“The conduct was of a sufficiently serious nature that MPI has referred it to the State Services Commission for investigation.”
Breach of conduct at MPI
Wilson said MPI was helping the SSC with its inquiry and was undertaking internal investigations of its own.
“We are extremely disappointed to learn that past employees of this organisation potentially breached our code of conduct, our trust, and by proxy the trust that was given to them by the New Zealanders that we serve,” he said.
State Services Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government supported Hughes' decision to broaden the investigation.
“The use of private investigators and the very close relationships they seem to have had in the past with some parts of the public service is very concerning and we need to get to the bottom of that."
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had been clear the Government didn't want agencies to use Thompson & Clark for spying, he said.