20 Apr 2017

Fraudster arranged husband's $100k govt salary

7:36 am on 20 April 2017

A convicted government fraudster not only tricked officials into hiring her husband - she also organised his $100,000 salary.

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Photo: 123rf

Transport Ministry fraudster Joanne Harrison successfully recommended her husband Patrick Sharp for a role at the Transport Accident Investigation Commission - without ever disclosing they were married.

Commission chief investigator of accidents Tim Burfoot, who hired Mr Sharp on Harrison's recommendation, has told RNZ that Harrison also arranged $100,000 in Transport Ministry funding for Mr Sharp's 12-month contract as an investigation support officer.

When staff at the Commission suspected there was a relationship between the two and alerted the Transport Ministry, they were told their concerns had no substance.

Joanne Harrison was sentenced to more than three-and-a-half years in prison in February for stealing nearly $750,000 from the ministry.

She created fake companies and paid them for work that was never done.

Mr Burfoot said Mr Sharp would not have got the job if had not been for Harrison's recommendation.

"No we wouldn't have - we were going to do that project in-house, it was an opportunity to actually fast-track it and they were funding us for that, so we embraced that and took it on.

"But no, if Harrison hadn't presented Patrick Sharp to us, we wouldn't have hired him," he said.

Mr Burfoot acknowledged TAIC was tricked.

"You could say.

"But at the end of the day it was put to us, 'Here's a resource, can you use it?' and we said, 'Yes, certainly we can,' - and you don't look a gift-horse in the mouth."

But Mr Burfoot said it did not take long before staff started becoming suspicious.

Harrison and Mr Sharp were seen together at airports and correspondence between the two was discovered.

"Staff including myself... started to get a feeling that there may have been a relationship between Mr Sharp and Ms Harrison," Mr Burfoot said.

"We raised that with our senior management who in turn raised that with the ministry and the ministry came back and said they'd looked into it and could find no substance behind that concern."

Shortly after TAIC raised its concerns with the ministry, Mr Sharp "unexpectedly resigned" and immediately became uncontactable, Mr Burfoot said.

He quit in July 2015 just five months into the role and Mr Burfoot said he would have known questions were being asked about the two.

"In hindsight he would have known, because I presume the ministry has approached Ms Harrison about it... He would have got wind of it."

Labour Party transport spokesperson Sue Moroney said the situation was another disturbing example of the Transport Ministry's leadership failing to heed the multiple warnings about Joanne Harrison.

An independent investigation into the fraud was needed, she said.

"The fact that Joanne Harrison's husband resigned as soon as questions started being asked should have been a major red flag for the Ministry of Transport and they should have acted immediately - they didn't.

"Nothing happened until April the following year," Ms Moroney said.

In a statement, Transport Ministry's chief executive Peter Mersi said a senior manager asked Harrison if she had a relationship with Mr Sharp.

"She gave an assurance that she didn't and that there was no conflict of interest, that was conveyed to TAIC."

Mr Mersi refused to be interviewed.

Less than a year earlier, in August 2014, Harrison was questioned repeatedly by the Ministry's chief executive at that time, Martin Matthews, about deals she was signing with a company called Sharp Design - fronted by a man named Mark Sharp:  

"The existence of Sharp Design is in question. It does not have a web presence and is not listed in the Yellow Pages."

"There's a name in the organisation which could suggest a personal connection which, if true, would have implications for the related party disclosures required of general managers."

Harrison was again able to convince the Ministry's managers there was nothing amiss.

It wasn't until she was finally stood down in 2016 that it was discovered Harrison had fraudulently paid $227,126 to Sharp Design - and that it didn't exist.  

The State Services Commission has left it to the Transport Ministry to investigate how the long-running fraud took place.

"We see no reason to conduct a wider investigation.

"We are confident that Peter Mersi as the new chief executive has been handling the matter responsibly," the Commission said in a statement.

The Transport Ministry is delaying releasing more information about the fraud to the media.

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