22 Mar 2018

'I wish I never met Nigel Murray' - former DHB chair

From Checkpoint, 5:09 pm on 22 March 2018

The former chair of Waikato DHB is blaming the accounts department for paying disgraced former CEO Nigel Murray's expenses, which he says he had no knowledge of at the time. 

The State Services Commission (SSC) released its investigation into Dr Murray today. It found more than half of the $218,000 he spent on travel and accommodation over three years was unjustified. 

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes said he would have fired him based on what he had learnt during the investigation. Instead, the DHB reached an agreement for Dr Murray to resign. He did so in October last year.

The DHB's chair at the time, Bob Simcock, resigned the next month. In an exclusive interview with Checkpoint with John Campbell, Mr Simcock said his preference was to fire Dr Murray after learning about his unauthorised spending, but legal advice went against that. 

"The thing I have to say to the State Services Commissioner - he wasn't in the room when he heard the advice and heard the reasons, so what he says in his statement is 'on the information that I have'. 

"Well, the reality is the board was aware that his preference would be for a sacking but the advice we received is that that would create serious risk to the DHB."

Dr Murray's lawyer Peter Cullen said a draft report into Dr Murray's conduct was to be destroyed as part of the settlement agreement, which saw him resign, but Mr Simcock denied that. 

"That is absolutely not true. The settlement agreement quite explicitly states that it will be withheld within the law, in other words if there is a legal obligation for us to make that available we will. Cullen should be fully aware that that draft report is held by the solicitor who did the work."

The draft report was more damning than the SSC investigation, and "probably quite clearly stating he is an unreliable witness in the mind of the investigator".

The SSC investigation, which referred Dr Murray to the Serious Fraud Office, found the DHB did not carry out normal checks and balances, which allowed Dr Murray's expenditure to continue for too long.

"The former chair's oversight of Dr Murray's expenses lacked the rigour and standard of care expected. The former chair retrospectively approved 20 of Dr Murray's travel applications, and, at least 42 of the total travel applications approved by the chair had no or inadequate evidence of business purpose," the SSC said in a statement.

Mr Hughes said the former chair had been too trusting of Dr Murray.

Mr Simcock disagreed.

"I think they [the SSC] have seriously missed though the need to ask the question how could this happen? And in my mind there is a very simple answer to that that they've chosen not to look at, and that was from day one the accounts department at Waikato DHB paid bills that had never been authorised by anybody," Mr Simcock said. 

"If someone is sending a bill in without it being authorised, you have a right to assume that the system won't pay it and that's the one thing the review, the inquiry doesn't in fact accept, it fails to go totally into how did that happen."

He agreed the buck stopped with the chairman, but there had to be a degree of "reasonableness".

"You cannot hold the chair responsible for every event that goes on with six and a half thousand staff.

"You have a statement in the inquiry that says quite clearly they agree with me that I have a right to assume that a bill that was not authorised would not be paid and for me that is the core of the issue here.  From day one, if that had not been occurring, none of this would have gone on." 

He said he wished he'd never met Mr Murray.

Murray was fired from job in Canada 

Mr Simcock said the DHB only recently learnt that Dr Murray had been fired from his job at Fraser Health in Canada. 

He had carried out several reference checks when hiring him for the job, and all his past employers had recommended him for the job. 

Mr Simcock said the head of British Columbia Health had recommended him, but he had since learnt Dr Murray was fired three weeks prior to their conversation. 

"I cannot understand how that could happen."

It was by chance the DHB discovered he had been fired. 

"Staff were cleaning out his desk quite recently, and it's quite bizarre in my mind but they found the letter firing him. So he had put that in a desk at Waikato DHB and when he left he didn't take it with him."

Murray travelling with companion, but not 'legal Mrs Murray'

Dr Murray travelled on at least one occasion with a woman who was not his wife. 

The trip that 'broke the camel's back' was when he traded a premium economy ticket to the United States for two economy tickets. 

"There was a story and explanation given for that. That explanation just doesn't make sense anymore."

A car he hired in Canada was still under hire when Dr Murray returned to New Zealand, returned back to Canada, then back to New Zealand. 

"The advice I was given was the hire company said it was returned by Mrs Murray, but it certainly wasn't the legal Mrs Murray and we do know from emails there was another woman with him for I think all of the time he was up there, probably longer, and it would appear running around in a DHB paid for car."

No one seems to know where Dr Murray is now.