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Collins quits cabinet

New allegations emerge that Justice Minister "was gunning" for the head of SFO boss Adam Feeley | Worse to come for Collins, source says. UPDATED: Hooton defends iPredict contract on Feeley.

Chris Keall
Sat, 30 Aug 2014

UPDATE: Judith Collins has resigned from cabinet, but will stay on as an MP and campaign for re-election in her seat of Papakura. While her party might have preferred a clean break, under the Electoral Act it is now too late for National to substitute another candidate for the electorate, Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis tells NBR.

Ms Collins resignation from cabinet followed the emergence of an email from Whaleoil blogger Cameron Slater to "Carrick" (presumably PR operative Carrick Graham), "Mark" and a third person whose name is blanked out (see photo below).

Ms Collins was the Minister responsible for the SFO at the time. In the email, Mr Slater says he has "spoken at length" to Ms Collins, whom he claims "is gunning for Feeley" and was keen to know anything of his background that she could pass on to the State Services Commission. Mr Graham's clients include at least one person who was under SFO investigation at the time.

Such actions would breach of the State Sector Act, which governs the employment relationship between a departmental chief executive and their Minister.

Ms Collins says she wants an inquiry, which she believes will clear her name.

NBR understands there's worse to come. A source close to the action says the next Whaledump, expected shortly, will be a full Facebook messaging exchange between Mr Slater and Ms Collins.

The email details how information being leaked to media by Mr Slater and others, and references a story by then NBR chief reporter Jock Anderson about Mr Feeley and his staff toasting charges against Bridgecorp's directors with an expensive bottle of champagne seized in an earlier raid on the failed finance company. The story was based on an interview with the head of the Criminal Bar Association, who called for Mr Feeley to stand down over the incident (the SFO head was ultimately let off with a caution after a State Services Commission investigation. He resigned 10 months later — three years into his five-year term — for a local body role in Queenstown).

In the email, Mr Slater also says "I have arranged with Matthew Hooton for iPredict ... to have a new stock released so people can invest in the probability of Adam Feeley getting the sack before Christmas or leaving."

Today, Mr Hooton told NBR he had no recollection of that approach from Mr Slater, "nor did I know the bigger picture [about Mr Feeley]". But that he assumed an iPredict contract had run on the SFO boss (it did). An approach from Mr Slater would not have been unusual. People often suggested ideas for contracts.

Mr Hooton's company Exceltium has had a longtime contract to promote the iPredict political marketplace, which is run by Victoria University and lets its 7000 registered users bet on the likelihood of various political events.

Mr Hooton says it is common for iPredict to run a contract on whether a public figure will resign. Currently, the site's member's are gambling on whether MFAT boss John Allen will take a fall. This week there was a contract on the possibility of Ms Collins' departure. "Ironically the stock was terribly wrong," he says.

What if it emerged that in the (unremembered) conversation Mr Slater had said he had inside information about events likely to affect Mr Feeley's prospects of keeping his job?

That would not be a problem, Mr Hooton says. "Insider trading is allowed on iPredict. That’s what makes it so accurate [in predicting political events]."

Key on Collins' resignation
Prime Minister John Key said he had accepted the resignation of Ms Collins following the receipt of new information that raised allegations about her conduct as a Minister.

“The relationship between a Minister and their Chief Executive is vital, and goes right to the heart of a trusted, effective government," Mr Key said.

“This new information suggests Ms Collins may have been engaged in discussions with a blogger in 2011 aimed at undermining the then Director of the Serious Fraud Office.

Mr Key released an email which had been recently been provided to his office.

“I have spoken with Ms Collins about the matters in the email, and she strongly denies any suggestion of inappropriate behaviour on her part," he said.

“Ms Collins accepts these are serious allegations and that resigning as a Minister is the honourable step to take in these circumstances."

Mr Key says Ms Collins resignation takes effect immediately, and Hon Christopher Finlayson will be Acting Minister of Justice, Hon Craig Foss will be Acting Minister for ACC, and Hon Hekia Parata will be Acting Minister for Ethnic Affairs.

Mr Key said he had told Ms Collins not to expect a cabinet post in a re-elected Key government, although if an inquiry found in her favour, the possibility of a return to cabinet could not be ruled out.

ABOVE: At midday, the PM's office released this photo of a PC screen displaying an email from Cameron Slater to Carrick Graham and others. Mr Key said a copy of the email was sent to his office anonymously yesterday. Lobbyist and political commentator Matthew Hooton says he was called by "a Beehive source" about the email on Wednesday. Mr Hooton says the source was a low-level functionary, and he does not believe Mr Key was aware of the email at the time. Click to zoom.

Collins calls for inquiry, says will clear her name
At a press conference, Ms Collins read a statement then walked out, refusing to take questions.

Her statement read: "A new allegation has come to light from an email conversation from 2011 between Cameron Slater and others suggesting I was undermining the then Director of the Serious Fraud Office.

"I was not party to this email or discussion and have only today been made aware of it.

"I strongly denied the claim and any suggestion of inappropriate behaviour.

"I am restrained in clearing my name while I am still a Minister inside Cabinet and I believe the right thing to do is to resign as a Minister so I am able to clear my name.

"I have asked the Prime Minister for an Inquiry into these serious allegations so that my name can be cleared. I will, of course, cooperate with any Inquiry."

Ms Collins said she was the victim of a two-year smear campaign, and had done nothing wrong.

She said it was her decision to resign.

Back on the front foot?
"National party supporters will be absolutely thrilled that John Key looks fully priminsterial again for the first time since August 15," Mr Hooton said this afternoon.

"But unfortunately it seems Mr Key only knows the tip of the iceberg about what has been going on under his nose."

Speculation Collins will be sacked as PM calls short-notice press conference
Members of the press gallery are speculating Justice Minister Judith Collins will resign or be sacked from cabinet at a 12.30 press conference called by Prime Minister John Key.

Mr Key cancelled scheduled campaign engagements in Lower Hutt's Queensgate Mall to accommodate a 12.30pm standup at the Beehive.

The NZ Herald is reporting that new evidence emerged in the past 24 hours of Ms Collins involvement in an effort to discredit SFO boss Adam Feeley.

NBR columnist Matthew Hooton has sighted emails that indicate leaks from Ms Collins office to Whale Oil about the subject of an SFO investigation. The information is said to have ultimately been passed on to the subject of an SFO investigation.

In another development, this morning, Privacy Commissioner John Edwards confirmed to NBR ONLINE that his office has received a complaint from ACC claimant Bronwyn Pullar regarding Ms Collins.

ACC mistakenly sent 6500 files to Ms Pullar, some containing sensitive information. Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater learnt her name, then published posts accusing Ms Pullar of trying to black mail the agency; she would go to the media if ACC did not pay out on her own claim, Mr Slater alleged. Police investigated the allegation, but dropped the case after Ms Pullar and Michelle Boag released a recording of their meeting with ACC managers — which contained no discussion of blackmail. The affair was revisited in Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics.

Mr Edwards did not comment on the substance of Ms Pullar's complaint, but it has been reported it relates to Ms Pullar alleging Ms Collins leaked false information about her to Whale Oil.

This morning's developments comes on top of a series of controversies for the Justice Minister. 

Mr Key's office has refused to comment on that he will cover at 12.30pm.

On August 20, the PM said Ms Collins — already on her "final warning" over the Oravida affair — was "on her last chance" for supplying personal details of alleged whistleblowing civil servant Simon Pleasants to Whaleoil.

In May, the Justice Minister went on a week’s leave after first accusing OneNews reporter Katie Bradford of requesting help for her (then) husband’s bid to get into Police College, then apologising and withdrawing the accusation. 

This week has also seen a new accusation from NZ First leader Winston Peters, who insists he was approached earlier this year about the possibility of entering into post-election negotiations with Judith Collins instead of John Key.

Chris Keall
Sat, 30 Aug 2014
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Collins quits cabinet