28 Mar 2018

Spied-upon groups welcome wider Thompson + Clark inquiry

11:31 am on 28 March 2018

Two groups that say they were spied on by Thompson + Clark are welcoming the widening of an inquiry into the controversial security company to cover not one but two government agencies.

A Christchurch family is attempting to sue the EQC and their insurer, Southern Response.

Southern Response Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

The State Services Commission this month appointed senior public servant Doug Martin to investigate use of the firm by the government's Christchurch quake claims company Southern Response.

It was announced yesterday that Thompson + Clark's relationship with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment would also be looked into.

The State Services Commissioner declined a request for an interview but a source told RNZ the new branch of the inquiry would look at whether the ministry had preserved its neutrality in its dealings with Thompson + Clark.

The ministry had always maintained the last time it contracted the company was in 2013 when it helped with security at a petroleum conference.

However, hundreds of pages of emails between it and the firm released to Greenpeace and Oil Free Wellington, and viewed by RNZ, showed that since then the two had maintained a close working relationship.

Greenpeace director Russel Norman hoped the inquiry would shine some much-needed daylight on the exact nature of their relationship.

"I think it's a very positive development. It's really unavoidable when you look at how close MBIE and Thompson and Clark have been working together."

Greenpeace was taking Thompson + Clark to court, saying it had followed its members home and taken photos of them.

In turn, Mr Norman and a fellow campaigner were defending charges laid against them by MBIE over interfering in the operations of an oil industry ship.

Mr Norman said that while he had no evidence, the ministry had paid Thompson + Clark for its surveillance work and it was clear the information it had been gathering was being fed directly to the ministry.

"The oil industry pay the bills, Statoil are on the record saying they pay Thompson and Clark, and then Thompson and Clark provides the services to MBIE. In some ways it's even worse than MBIE paying for it directly."

In a statement the ministry said it expected oil companies to brief it on their safety plans and acknowledged that Thompson + Clark had input into at least one of these plans.

However, Mr Norman said emails between the company and the ministry showed they had a much closer relationship.

He cited Thompson + Clark asking managers within the ministry for introductions to mining companies so it could approach them for work, something he said crossed the line when it came to the neutrality of the public service.

"So if the regulator approaches you and says 'hey, we have this surveillance and security company called Thompson and Clark and we think they're pretty good and we deal with them all the time', if you were the mining company at the receiving end of such an email or communication, you would inevitably look favourably upon Thompson and Clark."

Emails between the two, such as this one from Thompson + Clark to a manager at the ministry, also adopted a very familiar tone:

"Hi mate see Kevin is moving on!"

After asking for a contact the email finishes.

"Cheers hope all is well and might be in town next Tuesday night if you fancy a beer - I have asked Kevin but not sure if he will be keen."

The response from the ministry manager:

"Hey mate. They keep peeling off like used plasters! Could do with a beer. Things are a bit dynamic at the mo so will commit later."

Another group welcoming the inquiry into the ministry was activist group Oil Free Wellington.

Its spokesperson, Frances Mountier, said questions needed to be asked about the monthly reports the company provided for MBIE and noted it was doing the same thing in 2007 when its activities last came under the spotlight over its hiring of an informant to infiltrate a protest group.

"It's disappointing to know that government departments are still taking those newsletters, and it seems entirely likely to me that other agencies as well have either signed up or [have] been receiving these kind of dossiers that Thompson and Clark create on community groups."

Thompson + Clark declined to be interviewed but in a statement said it operated within the law.

It welcomed the inquiry and said it would cooperate with it fully if asked.

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