8 Oct 2015

Founder drops $11.2m claim against Wananga

6:40 pm on 8 October 2015

A multi-million dollar claim lodged against tertiary education provider Te Wananga o Aotearoa by its founder Dr Rongo Wetere and his daughter Susan Cullen has been dropped.

Rongo Wetere

Rongo Wetere Photo: SUPPLIED

The pair were demanding $11.2 million in compensation for intellectual property rights.

Ten months ago Dr Wetere sent a letter to Te Wananga O Aotearoa chief executive, Dr Jim Mather, demanding $11.2 million and representation on the wananga's governing council.

The claim was for breaching intellectual property rights and copyright infringements, and in the letter Dr Wetere demanded the money be paid within four days.

In media interviews that followed, Dr Wetere called Dr Mather a "Johnny-come-lately" and said he'd take the Wananga to the cleaners.

Dr Wetere also wanted his institution reinstated on the Wananga governance council, from which he'd been removed some years earlier. But Dr Mather said the leadership at present was just what was needed.

Dr Mather said he was relieved the action had been abandoned.

"To reach a point where the Aotearoa Institute, with prominent members of the Wetere whanau withdrawing their legal procedures has been very uplifting for myself, our governance group, as well as the entire organisation."

Te Wananga o Aotearoa chief executive Jim Mather.

Te Wananga o Aotearoa chief executive Jim Mather Photo: Te Wananga o Aotearoa

Dr Mather said while Dr Wetere and his family had contributed significantly to the Wananga's early days, his time had now passed.

Dr Wetere believed Te Wananga o Aotearoa indirectly copied parts or possibly the whole of a course called Te Ara Reo Maori which it was claimed was in breach of his institution's property rights. The money sought was for six years of compensation.

As the founder of the learning institution 30 years ago, Dr Wetere's vision was to provide education for Maori who had fallen through the cracks. Once the wananga secured tertiary status in 1993 student numbers increased rapidly - from 1000 students in 1999 to 63,000 in 2003.

The funding increased rapidly also: by 2004, it was receiving funding of about $156 million from the Crown.

Concerns began to surface around conflicts of interest and spending, and the auditor-general investigation found three recurring themes:

  • Poor decision-making practices for significant expenditure
  • Inadequate management of conflicts of interest
  • Unacceptable practices in senior management expenses concerning international travel and credit cards

Ms Cullen, who worked as a volunteer at the Wananga, also owned companies that held joint ventures with the tertiary institution.

Susan Cullen.

Susan Cullen. Photo: MAORI PARTY

In its 2005 investigation of conflicts of interest, the auditor-general detailed large payments between the wananga and Ms Cullen's companies that included transactions to the tune of $26 million in just one year. The companies made more than $47 million between 2002 and 2005, with some reports claiming it was much more than that.

A reporter once asked Ms Cullen what she thought about the amount her companies were earning and she replied "God sends waves and you have to learn how to surf them".

But she and her father Dr Wetere have missed this last wave, and Dr Mather - who holds the title Te Taiurungi , or The Navigator - said it was time to put this court case aside and get back to the helm of his waka.

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