17 Oct 2023

Landlord told foreign affairs staffer Saudi govt entourage was to visit his Wellington home

5:05 pm on 17 October 2023

By Ethan Griffiths, Open Justice multimedia journalist, Wellington of NZ Herald

New Zealand and Saudi Arabia flags.

A tenant working as a Foreign Affairs staffer raised security concerns upon learning that a Saudi Arabian government entourage was to view his home. (file image) Photo: 123RF

"Two planeloads" of Saudi Arabian government officials were on their way to Wellington to view three properties that were on the market, but there was a problem: one of the existing tenants was a foreign affairs staffer with security concerns about the Saudis walking through his home.

That led to a dispute that resulted in the tenant trespassing his landlord and the landlord alleging her tenant was engaging in "political interference" and attempting to prevent the Saudi government from purchasing the property.

But the landlord's behaviour has been found wanting, with a tribunal ruling she harassed and threatened the tenant.

Wellington real estate agent Tanya Lieven denies that and on Monday appealed a finding against her made by the Real Estate Agents Disciplinary Tribunal (READT).

Lieven was both the landlord of the property, as well as the real estate agent who was selling the home. While she does not own the property, she is the beneficiary of a trust which does.

According to the tribunal's decision, when Lieven informed the tenants in July 2019 that the home was required for viewing Monday to Friday between 10am and 5pm, the man raised concerns, saying he required 48 hours' notice.

Lieven responded, saying the notice she had given was legal and given in her capacity as the real estate agent, not as the landlord.

The tenant was eventually told by Lieven that the prospective buyer was the Saudi Arabian government. The tenant, who cannot be identified, was a senior foreign affairs staffer working within the New Zealand Government.

Lieven needed access to the property at such a broad time because she was unsure when the Middle Eastern entourage would arrive. She told NZME "two planeloads" of Saudi diplomats and security were arriving in Wellington to view multiple properties.

The concerned tenant attempted to compromise, saying viewings could be made with 24 hours' notice and a rough time when the visits would take place.

"You have had notice. This week [the Saudi government] are viewing the property along with their purchase delegation, their security staff, their Ambassador and diplomatic security squad," Lieven wrote back.

After further emails back and forth in which the tenant detailed his security concerns, he eventually issued Lieven with a trespass notice until they could come to an agreement.

"Then I'll sue you for each and every loss. The sale price is $8 million," she replied.

The tenant then launched a claim against Lieven in the Tenancy Tribunal.

Lieven told NZME the Saudi entourage never ended up viewing the property.

'Political interference' - Lieven

In the Tenancy Tribunal, the adjudicator ruled Lieven had confused her obligations as a landlord to provide notice of viewing with her obligation to provide notice of sale.

The referee ruled the tenant had acted reasonably and that Lieven's threat to sue was "intended to harass the tenants and was a direct threat". She was ordered to pay $1500.

Lieven appealed the decision to the district court, but the court upheld the tribunal's findings. It was while applying for a tribunal rehearing that Lieven suggested her tenant was engaging in political interference.

The tenant then laid a complaint with the READT. This tribunal also ruled Lieven's communication with the tenant was with the intention to threaten.

"We find that Ms Lieven's conduct in harassing the tenants in the manner that she did and in threatening to sue the tenants was inappropriate and fell short of the standard that a reasonable member of the public should expect from a competent licensee," the tribunal said in its decision.

"Furthermore, Ms Lieven has failed to accept responsibility for her conduct. In the circumstances, we find that a censure is appropriate."

She was censured, fined $3000 and ordered to undertake further training in legal issues realtors encounter.

During the appeal hearing yesterday at the High Court at Wellington, Lieven's lawyer David Hayes said there was no real reason for the tenant to object on the basis of security concerns. If his job was so sensitive, there should be nothing sensitive left at his home.

He said Lieven's threat to sue was a genuine legal threat which Lieven was entitled to make. He said her actions did not meet the accepted definition of harassment.

"Whilst it would have been better left unsaid, is it a threat? Is it notice?"

He also said the appeal decision of the district court was prejudicial.

"The district court judge has greater powers than the tribunal. If a judge says something to a tribunal, why wouldn't they be influenced by that?" He referred to the "judicial pecking order".

One of the biggest contentions was that the tenant's evidence wasn't tested. Hayes could not cross-examine him.

"In terms of a fair hearing, he should have been present."

In reply, lawyer for the complaints assessment committee Farzana Nizam said the tribunal made no errors in its assessment. She said the tribunal was entitled to call (or not call) who it liked.

High Court Justice Helen McQueen reserved her decision.

Outside court, Liezen told NZME that both tribunals and the district court had erred in their decisions and planned to take her case "all the way to the Supreme Court".

The former tenant was not named during the hearing or in previous decisions.

- This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.