Tuesday December 11, 2018
Sunday, 27 May 2018 07:23

ACC calls in top Queen's Counsel to review allegations

Hugh Rennie, QC, was hired by ACC to oversee the secret review of its CEO and culture. Hugh Rennie, QC, was hired by ACC to oversee the secret review of its CEO and culture. Stacy Squires

ACC is undertaking a secretive review into the conduct of its chief executive and the organisation's culture.

The Government department hired top Queen's Counsel, Hugh Rennie, to tackle this review.

It was sparked after lengthy allegations were sent to ACC Minister Iain Lees-Galloway in November, via anonymous email. Further allegations were sent in February, and after seeking advice, Lees-Galloway requested ACC look into the claims in March.

ACC chair Dame Paula Rebstock asked a top QC to investigate allegations sent anonymously to ACC Minister Iain Lees-Galloway. Photo: PETER MEECHAM/STUFF

ACC declined interview requests and refused to answer questions, maintaining the allegations were baseless.

The source of the email later supplied the same allegations to Stuff, citing concern at the time it was taking Lees-Galloway to decide whether to act.

Lees-Galloway, who also refused to be interviewed, insisted on Friday, through his press secretary, that once he was told of the allegations, he "immediately" sought advice and raised the issues with ACC once he had considered his options.

"I initiated my process immediately, as soon as I felt I had sufficient advice to take action, I took action," the minister said through a spokesman.

Although anonymous, the allegations appear to show a detailed working knowledge of ACC, suggesting the author either had a senior position in the organisation or an agency that monitors it.

The allegations questioned ACC's hiring practices, spending culture, and actions taken by chief executive Scott Pickering at ACC and Kiwibank, where he is a director.

Shortly after Pickering was appointed chief executive, ACC contracted Heidrick & Struggles to do nearly $100,000 work designing a new organisational structure.

Then, last year, Kiwibank contracted Heidrick & Struggles to headhunt a new boss.

"Scott Pickering was one of four members elected by the Kiwibank Board to recruit the new chief executive officer," Kiwibank spokeswoman Kara Tait said this weekend. "The final appointment was a full board decision. As a member of the committee, he, along with others had input into the decision to engage Heidrick & Struggles, again the final decision was made by the full board."

The allegations also asserted a flagship project to overhaul ACC was delivering only a fraction of the benefits originally claimed.

Treasury previously questioned whether the project, dubbed "shaping our future", could be delivered on time and on budget.

ACC chair Dame Paula Rebstock refused to discuss the investigation beyond a short statement, saying the allegations were "without merit".

She refused to reveal the terms of reference of the review, which parts of the allegations were looked into, or even how much taxpayer money was being spent on the review.

"The Board is undertaking a review of its processes and policies, again with the assistance of a Queen's Counsel who has provided preliminary advice that there are no issues of concern," Rebstock said, also through a spokesman.

Rebstock previously headed a controversial government inquiry into leaks from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Problems with the way that inquiry was conducted resulted in two diplomats receiving compensation and an apology.

Rennie also declined to comment on Friday.

Lees-Galloway initially claimed he had been given no information about the ACC probe. However, late on Friday he clarified he had not yet received a "formal briefing" after ACC appeared to contradict his statement.

The State Services Commission has limited powers over Crown entities such as ACC, but can investigate the conduct of employees.

While it has not done so, documents released under the Official Information Act show the SSC scoured publicly available documents to try to "shed any light" on the allegations.

The Commission also solicited the minister's help in trying to establish a direct line of contact to the person making the allegations.

After ACC ignored advice from the Commission and the former National Government to constrain pay increases, Pickering is thought to be New Zealand's highest paid public servant, with total remuneration of up to $840,000 in 2016/17.

Over three years, his annual salary was hiked by $230,000.

Sunday Star Times

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