5 Jul 2017

'Good progress' in Transport Ministry whistleblowers report

6:40 am on 5 July 2017

The inquiry into whether a convicted fraudster forced out whistleblowers at the Transport Ministry will be released this month.

The State Services Commission is investigating whether Joanne Harrison was able to restructure staff out of the organisation who had raised red flags about her.

Harrison stole nearly $750,000 while working as a senior manager at the Transport Ministry despite staff repeatedly raising concerns about her.

She was sentenced to three and a half years in jail in February.

Two former ministry staff told RNZ they alerted senior managers to fake invoices and dubious travel Harrison was taking but were then targeted in a restructuring she helped lead.

In May, the State Services Commission (SSC) began looking into those claims, and into those of other staff who had come forward saying they felt Harrison had targetted them.

At yesterday's launch of a new Australasian report into whistleblowing - Whistling While They Work 2 - Deputy State Services Commissioner Debbie Power said the report would be out by the end of the month.

"Sandi Beatie, who is completing the investigation on behalf of the State Services Commission, has made good progress and we're expecting to get her report in the near future."

When Labour MP Sue Moroney first raised the allegations in March that the public servants had been forced out, the Transport Ministry's new chief executive Peter Mersi and Transport Minister Simon Bridges refused to investigate.

Labopur MP, Sue Moroney.

Labour MP Sue Moroney initially raised the allegations in March. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Ms Power was asked whether the State Services Commission was concerned by their responses.

"You're asking me to make a comment in relation to a minister and I'm not prepared to do that, that's not appropriate," she said.

"What I can tell you is that we ... wrote to Peter Mersi and asked him to look at the organisation and then go forward from that.

"We had people write to the State Services Commission and as a result we've taken the action that we've taken."

The ministry's chief executive at the time of the fraud, Martin Matthews, has stood down from his new role as Auditor General while a separate review assesses his suitability for the appointment.

Auditor General Martin Matthews.

Martin Matthews has stood down from his new role as Auditor General while an independent review is held into his appointment. Photo: RNZ

Whistleblowing legislation failing - Ombudsman

The new Whistling While They Work 2 report has found New Zealand is not doing enough to ensure whistleblowers can speak out and are protected.

The report looked at the policies in place to enable and protect whistleblowers in Australia and New Zealand.

Co-authore Michael Macaulay, from Victoria University, said New Zealand organisations needed to do more to track whistleblowing complaints.

"Twenty-three percent of organisations that responded said that they don't really have any institutions and practices and processes in place to do that."

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said the Protected Disclosures Act was failing and many staff were not speaking out.

"The Act is meant to give people a protected, safe, encouraging atmosphere and context to make complaints of wrong-doing and it doesn't do it," Mr Boshier said.

"And secondly the Act's never brought in a good guide, good system to enable employers to use it."

Mr Boshier said people were unsure whether they would be protected if they did try to blow the whistle.

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