20 Nov 2014

Sutton case may have 'chilling effect'

7:10 pm on 20 November 2014

The State Services Commission's handling of the Roger Sutton case has made it more difficult for future sexual harrassment complainants to come forward, according to a union leader.

Roger Sutton.

Roger Sutton. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) chief executive anounced his resignation on Monday and has made claims about the nature of the conduct for which he was investigated, despite confidentiality agreements.

Public Service Association (PSA) national secretary Erin Polaschuk said the fact that Mr Sutton was able to speak publicly about the case has made life harder for the complainant.

She told Morning Report the commission has failed to acknowledge how difficult it would be for her to make the complaint.

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie has said he is deeply disappointed by the breaches of confidentiality that followed the investigation.

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie.

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie. Photo: RNZ

Mr Rennie has himself been criticised for the way he has handled the case but has State Services Minister Paula Bennett's backing.

Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Jackie Blue wants answers from Mr Rennie about his handling of the complaint and said Mr Sutton should not have been allowed to make public comments that seemed to trivialise the matter.

Roger Sutton held a media conference on Monday alongside Mr Rennie, in which he said he was confronting his actions following complaints by a senior staff member.

Mr Sutton said he called women inappropriate names, such as honey and sweetie, and made jokes, and he was sorry that behaviour had hurt people.

Dr Blue told Morning Report the matter should have remained confidential.

"At the media conference Mr Sutton had the opportunity to make his own comments about the case and he seemed to get a lot of support from that," Dr Blue said.

"Really, where was the voice of the woman, how will future complainants look how this has been handled and would they want to step up and be courageous and make a complaint."

Ms Blue said it was a pity the confidential complaint and mediation processes in the Employment Relations Act or Human Rights Act were not used.

Barrister Catriona MacLennan said it was not fair to give Mr Sutton the floor when his victim was bound by a confidentiality clause and Mr Rennie should have spoken to the press alone.

The inquiry found Mr Sutton guilty of serious misconduct, but did not recommend dismissal. Mr Sutton on Monday announced he would step down in January, but State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie yesterday announced that John Ombler had been appointed acting chief executive, effective from 1 December.

Dr Blue has questioned the investigation outcome which she said could have a chilling effect on anyone else in the public sector who was being sexually harassed and wanted to make a complaint.

Prime Minister John Key said Iain Rennie had generally done a good job of handling the sexual harassment claims against Mr Sutton, but at times found it difficult and frustrating, Mr Key said.

Bennett says no review necessary

State Services Minister Paula Bennett said today she would not be calling for a review into the handling of the investigation surrounding Roger Sutton. However, she said she was always prepared to look at policies and procedures.

Ms Bennet said she continued to have confidence in the State Services Commissioner, but would not be commenting further as it was an employment matter. In a statement, she said she had received an assurance from Mr Rennie that the investigation had been thorough.

Mr Rennie said yesterday it was was grossly unfair that the complainant in the case has been criticised over the complaint.

The complainant had been criticised on social media and other media, and he wanted to stress that the large part of her complaint was upheld and that she had suffered hurt and distress, he said.

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