21 Feb 2020

Petition hearing: Probe that forced Auditor-General Martin Matthews to resign defended

1:00 pm on 21 February 2020

A former top civil servant has defended his investigation that forced the Auditor-General Martin Matthews to resign three years ago.

Martin Matthews

Martin Matthews resigned as Auditor-General in 2017. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

Matthews left the job just before a scathing report was about to be released into his handling of fraudster Joanne Harrison when he headed the Ministry of Transport.

Matthews argues he was treated unfairly and a group of MPs that appoints independent officers of Parliament is hearing his case.

He resigned in 2017, just before a damning report was due to be released into his handling of an almost quarter of a million dollar fraud while he was CEO of the Transport Ministry.

The group of MPs that appoints independent officers of Parliament is hearing Matthews' petition.

He claims to have been wrongly treated and that MPs effectively put a 'gun to his head' to force his resignation.

However, the report's author and the former Speaker of the House told a different story at Parliament.

Matthews continues to insist what happened at the Transport Ministry should not have resulted in him having to resign as Auditor-General.

He has told a parliamentary committee he wants redress for wrongs inflicted on him.

"I have paid a very high price for the criminal actions of another person and because of misguided and factually wrong allegations by members of Parliament and because this committee in the last Parliament did not do its job properly.

"I was treated illegally but without remedy," he said.

Matthews told MPs he has found it hard to find a new job and he and his wife have had to sell their family home.

It's understood Matthews was told that if he didn't resign, Parliament would hold a vote of no confidence in him.

Matthews contends Harrison was brought to justice because of him, after he was given a tip-off in 2016.

He is adamant a proper inquiry would have set the record straight and is disputing the findings of the report that led to his resignation.

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Martin Matthews contends Joanne Harrison (above) was brought to justice because of him. Photo: Supplied

However, the report's author Sir Maarten Wevers stands by his conclusions, saying issues were raised directly with Matthews about missing contracts being managed by Harrison two years before Matthews he would take action in 2016.

At one point the Victoria State police in Australia approached the Ministry to ask if Harrison worked there, said Sir Maarten, because "she was a person of interest to fraud in Melbourne".

"We were informed that one of Matthews' senior managers took this email, gave it to Matthews, he told us he doesn't recall receiving that email.

"He then went and spoke to Harrison himself and said 'we've had this inquiry about you from the fraud and extortion unit in Australia' and she reportedly replied, 'there must be a mistake it must be someone else' and the matter then rested there," he said.

Former Speaker of the House and National MP David Carter also gave his side of the story.

To the surprise to many people in the room, he shed light on why the committee of MPs responsible for these appointments made the controversial decision not to release the report at the time of Matthews' resignation.

"The conclusion based on some particular evidence given to the committee by a member that he had heard from friends of Mr Matthews that his mental health was fragile, the word suicidal was used and on that basis the committee decided not to table and release the particular reports," Carter said.

But Matthews' lawyer, Mary Scholtens QC rejected those comments.

"Why wouldn't you put that to at least his counsel, why would you make a decision based on someone's mental health, when they are asking you to do just the opposite?" she said.

Matthews has until 11 March to give his full response to the submissions made.

The committee will decide on how it will examine the petition when it next meets, which is likely to include hearing from people who have offered to submit in Matthews' defence.