25 Feb 2010

Minister could be reinstated, depending on inquiry

6:00 pm on 25 February 2010

The Prime Minister says he's prepared to reinstate Phil Heatley as a minister, depending on the outcome of an independent inquiry by the Auditor-General into Mr Heatley's accounts.

On Thursday morning, after three days of controversy over his misuse of his ministerial credit card, Mr Heatley resigned his portfolios of housing and fisheries and asked the Auditor-General to conduct an independent inquiry into his accounts.

Prime Minister John Key, who initially said that he would not require Mr Heatley to stand down from Cabinet, says he accepts the resignation with regret. He says that he expects high standards of all his ministers, and that Mr Heatley's actions have been careless and untidy.

Ministerial cards are supposed to be used only for official business expenses; reimbursement for personal expenses is not allowed.

Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee, who earlier this week apologised for misuse of his ministerial card and repaid $151 he spent on lunch with his electorate staff last year, says he respects Mr Heatley's decision to resign but is not considering doing the same.

Mr Brownlee says he has gone through his receipts endlessly and is comfortable he signed the right sort of description for his spending.

'On closer inspection,' another error discovered

Before resigning, Mr Heatley had already paid back $1260 for inappropriate spending on his ministerial credit card.

But at a news conference at Parliament on Thursday morning he said that, having gone back through the records of the past 18 months, he had discovered another error.

He had already repaid $175 spent on what he said at the time was food and beverages at a National Party conference. On closer inspection, he now says, he finds that there was no food included;

the payment was for two bottles of wine only.

He says he was not as familiar with the rules around credit-card use as he should have been, and used the card carelessly.

Full support of electorate committee

Pending the Auditor-General's report, government ministers Maurice Williamson and David Carter will handle the housing and fisheries portfolios respectively.

Mr Brownlee says he thinks the Auditor-General will clear Mr Heatley.

Mr Heatley will stay on as MP for Whangarei. The chairman of his electorate committee, Murray Broadbelt, says he has the committee's full and continuing support.

The MP has been careless at worst, Mr Broadbelt says, and resignation is a high price to pay.