19 Jun 2023

Human Rights Commission rejects Foon's claim he declared conflicts

6:03 pm on 19 June 2023
Meng Foon

Meng Foon. Photo: Paul Rickard / Gisborne Herald

The Human Rights Commission has rubbished outgoing Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon's claim he declared his conflict of interest.

The government on Friday announced Foon had tendered his resignation after failing to adequately disclose a conflict of interest relating to more than $2 million paid to a company of which he was a director of, for accommodation including emergency housing.

Foon, adamant he had declared his interests in the emergency housing provider when he became Race Relations Commissioner in 2019, provided RNZ with documentation to back up his claims.

One of the documents, an undated board conflict of interest register, listed the emergency housing income.

However, a spokesperson for the commission said the document was from 7 June, and the first time that specific income had been noted on the register was late April this year.

"It was added after Meng Foon was asked by the Chief Commissioner to fully declare all his interests in the wake of the political donations story of 21st April 2023, after which time the MSD housing income came to the Board's attention," the spokesperson said.

Foon did list his company, MY Gold Investments Ltd, in the formal declaration he signed when he took on the commissioner role, but failed to declare the emergency housing income he was receiving through it, the spokesperson said.

"In addition, he did not declare it when prompted on several occasions to consider any conflicts and record them, including when the board began discussion on the housing inquiry (which considered, among other things, the emergency housing system).

"Lastly, it's important to understand that potential conflicts of interest are the ongoing duty of commissioners to identify and declare, on appointment to the commission, or as they arise during a commissioner term. It is not the responsibility of the board to independently investigate commissioners in terms of any potential conflict.

"Commissioners are asked at every board and programme committee meeting (sub-committees of the board) to confirm or update their declaration of interests. In Meng Foon's time as Race Relations Commissioner, this would have arisen on multiple occasions."

The commission said it would need to check how many meetings Foon attended where he would have been reminded to update the register, but the board and Housing Inquiry met quarterly - which suggested it was at least 15 times since 2019.

Foon has resigned - PM Chris Hipkins

Earlier today, Foon told RNZ he was uncertain whether he had officially resigned or not.

He said he had on Friday morning emailed the prime minister to warn of his intention to resign on Sunday.

"So, as a courtesy email to the prime minister, I said 'look, the associate minister [of Justice, Deborah Russell] is deciding, highly probable that she's going to sack me and so I'm going to resign, and I'll resign this Sunday'," he said.

"This is a Meng's process. Because I've been in local government and other organisations, I know the sensitivity of politics, and so it's always a heads-up with a note, quickly to the prime minister or to ministers - no suprises, this is the topic on hand - and leave it at that."

At his post-Cabinet media briefing, Hipkins read out the email he had recieved from Foon.

"It says, 'I am resigning as the Race Relations Commissioner, as I didn't declare the amount of money MY Gold Investments was receiving from MSD. I'll resign Sunday'," Hipkins said.

Hipkins said he had been advised the government was right to accept Foon's email as a resignation letter.

Foon responds

Speaking to Checkpoint, Foon made his case. It was put to him that the document he provided as evidence was from June this year.

"That was 7th of June this year? Oh no, no, no, no, no. I've been updating my register all the time," he said.

"I've got my information and I only discovered it a little while - about two weekends - ago, and I can prove to you that I have declared the emergency housing and it has been deleted from the Human Rights Commission register.

"I was hoping that they would give me a fair go and revisit the information and the new evidence that I've produced, but to no avail."

He said he thought he was being treated as a scapegoat, suggesting he was being treated more harshly than others facing conflict of interest concerns like Immigration Minister Michael Wood.

He was asked about his donations to Kiri Allan as well as National Party candidate and Rotorua mayor Tania Tapsell.

"I don't know the politics of politics," he said, "I know what I did and I can say I acted independently right through".

He said, however, he did not plan to make a stand.

"I know full well when you get the boot, that's it. You're gone. So I was gone by Friday, which is interesting. I'm okay."

He said his resignation had been accepted, but he believed the government needed to confirm it with him.

"The minister has accepted my resignation now, because the email went astray, it bounced," he said. "Whatever they think, but they need to confirm it with me, don't they."

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