Court told of attempted blackmail of Kōhanga Reo trust

7:31 pm on 19 May 2017

The son of a kōhanga reo matriarch tried to blackmail the Kōhanga Reo National Trust for $800,000, the High Court in Wellington heard today.

The court was told Rakai Tawhiwhirangi, who is the son of Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, demanded money from the trust when his wife, Lynda Tawhiwhirangi, was dismissed as general manager of its commercial arm Te Pataka Ohanga for misusing her credit card.

The events have been revealed in a case where former trustee Toni Waho is challenging his dismissal as a trustee in 2014.

Toni Waho.

A former trustee of the Kōhanga Reo National Trust, Toni Waho. Photo: RNZ / Leigh Mclachlan

The court heard that when his wife's severance payment was rejected, Mr Tawhiwhirangi presented a list of allegations against trustees and directors to his mother, board member Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi.

The list included allegations that an expensive car had been purchased for a VIP and that that person's honorarium payments had been hidden to avoid media scrutiny.

It included allegations of misuse of taxi chits, loans and that two bosses and their partners went to China on a work trip that achieved nothing.

Trustee Druis Barrett, who was director of Te Pataka Ohanga, said Mr Tawhiwhirangi demanded $800,000 or he would take the list to the media.

"That was the reason why that conference call was called that evening to discuss the fact that Lynda Tawhiwhirangi, we should not dismiss her, because the Rakai list would condemn a whole lot of people," she said.

Trust co-chair Tina Olsen Ratana said she was not told about a demand for money when Dame Iritana gave her the list.

Ms Olsen-Ratana considered the list of allegations to be part of an employment dispute for Te Pataka Ohanga and not a matter for the Trust.

"It was part of a conversation between a mother and a son as part of a breakdown of an employment dispute," she said.

Ms Olsen-Ratana said she handed the list to Druis Barrett, who was leading the disciplinary processes around Lynda Tawhiwhirangi.

"Obviously it was part of that, at the time, that disciplinary process."

Around that time there were three organisations investigating the Trust including Ernst and Young, Internal Affairs and KPMG.

The Trust was under the media spotlight for Lynda Tawhiwhirangi's actions.

Felix Geiringer (standing) and James Mahuta-Coyle.

Felix Geiringer (standing) and James Mahuta-Coyle. Photo: RNZ / Leigh Marama McLachlan

Felix Geiringer, who is the lawyer for former trustee Mr Waho, said Mr Waho was worried that some trustees were considering paying to keep it quiet.

"If somebody has said to you, 'I want you to give me a large sum of money as part of an employment dispute ... or I am going to go to the media with lots of allegations about your organisation, some of which I will suggest are quite clearly if they are true, quite clearly criminal', and you say 'oh okay how much money', there are all sorts of problems with that."

The court heard that no money was paid out.

Trust co-chair Timoti Karetu agreed it was an employment dispute matter.

He told the court on Wednesday that the allegations were either false and old news or were not serious.

One allegation was about Dr Karetu living in a house in Wellington that was paid for by the Trust for the year that he was chair of the board and acting chief executive.

"This was part of my remuneration package," Dr Karetu said.

"The trust was of the view that it would be cheaper for me to stay in a rental property rather than a hotel given I was required to spend so much time in Wellington when I did not normally live there."

Dr Karetu said a lot of the allegations had already been dealt with in the past by the Trust and Te Pataka Ohanga.

Trust lawyer Nick Russell said the Trust had agreed a date to meet and discuss the list and what to do about it.

But before that date and without the board's knowledge, Mr Waho sent a letter to then-Education Minister Hekia Parata informing her that the list existed.

That led to the launch of a Serious Fraud Office investigation into Te Pataka Ohanga.

Mr Russell said the list was provided to the investigation which largely exonerated the Trust, because it found no criminal activity.

"The allegations that Mr Tawhiwhirangi made did not in fact disclose any serious wrongdoing at all," he said.

"The allegations did not require immediate investigation partly because they were not serious in the first place, partly because they had arisen in the context of an employment dispute that was being managed."

However, Mr Geiringer said there were questions about the scope of the investigation and Mr Waho did not think the list had been properly looked into.

The court heard that all of the trustees, excluding democratically elected Daniel Procter, will step down by the end of the year.