Former trustee takes legal battle back to High Court

6:49 am on 9 May 2017

A former Kōhanga Reo trustee who lost his job after he blew the whistle over allegations of financial impropriety has taken his legal battle back to the High Court.

Toni Waho.

A former trustee of the Kōhanga Reo National Trust, Toni Waho. Photo: RNZ / Leigh Mclachlan

Toni Waho is arguing that he was acting with integrity when he raised a number of concerns about the trust's affairs with the then Minister of Education, Hekia Parata.

But the trust said those actions brought it into disrepute and dismissed him in 2014.

He has been fighting his dismissal ever since.

In a break from Māori customs, there was no mihi or warm exchange between Mr Waho and representatives of the Kōhanga Reo National Trust today.

Five female Kōhanga representatives, including Tina Olsen-Ratana and Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, watched on from the public gallery.

The court was told that the spouse of a former employee at the Kōhanga Reo National Trust had a list of allegations against trustees and demanded $800,000 or he would take it to the media.

Felix Geiringer and James Mahuta-Coyle.

Toni Waho's lawyer Felix Geiringer and James Mahuta-Coyle. Photo: RNZ / Leigh Mclachlan

In his opening statement, Mr Waho's lawyer Felix Geiringer said his client was asked to keep the allegations and the blackmail threat a secret.

"He said 'we have got to investigate these allegations and we can't pay money to anyone to try and keep them hidden - that would be wrong'," Mr Geiringer said.

"And what other people said in response, this is his case, is 'no, it would be terrible for the trust if these allegations were made public at this moment'."

That was because the trust was only just recovering from strong scrutiny after the chief executive of its commercial arm Te Pataka Ohanga, Lynda Tawhiwhirangi, was fired in 2013 for misusing her credit card.

Several reports and investigations were launched into Te Pataka Ohanga and the trust, which found governance issues but no criminal activity.

Before a planned hui between government ministers and Kohanga trustees, Mr Waho sent a letter to then Education Minister Hekia Parata to inform her of the allegations.

"Mr Waho's position is it would be dishonest of them to meet with the ministers and agree a public statement that says 'look at this wonderful report we have just got back this trust hasn't misspent public money, isn't that wonderful'," said Mr Geiringer.

"When the ministers don't know and the people who produced the report don't know that in the mean time the trustees have become privy to a whole raft of additional accusations."

The letter sparked the launch of an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office, which also found no crimes were committed.

In 2014, Mr Waho was removed from the trust for bringing it into disrepute and he has been fighting his dismissal ever since.

When the High Court declined to stop it, he went to the Court of Appeal who also dismissed his case.

He has now gone back to the High Court.

Mr Geiringer argued that Mr Waho was forced out for being honest and acting with integrity.

"When a trustee is told that the funds of the trust are being misspent, are essentially being stolen by other people, absolutely that trustee and every trustee that heard about this had an obligation at law to make sure that they got to the bottom of these allegations and that they do it promptly, that didn't happen."

The defence will make its opening statement at the end of the week or early next week.

The trial is set to run for 12 days.