Mihi Forbes presents the second part of 'Feathering the nest' (image: screengrab)

Elites always protect their own: inside the Kōhanga Reo saga

Former Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust chair Toni Waho was removed from his position in 2014 for allegedly bringing the trust into disrepute when he reported misspending by a subsidiary. Last month the High Court cleared Waho of any misconduct. The price paid by everyone involved in the six years leading up to that point was entirely too high, writes Morgan Godfery.

I might be the only kid in the kōhanga reo movement’s rich history that they actually had to boot out. It’s not that I was a bad dude or anything. More a 1990s, Dennis the Menace-type, right down to the blonde comb-over. I’d spill buckets of paint all over the floor (deliberately), walk out the front door and go for a cheeky wander across the road. Worst of all, I’d insist on speaking English at all times to everyone. This wasn’t the worst thing to ever happen in a pre-school – except maybe going tipi haere across the road – but it was a bit too much for the Nannies. None of the other kids got a look in between cleaning up the spills, locking the doors and windows, and trying to get through to me in te reo Māori.

Two decades later and I’m a little ashamed about causing any trouble at all for the Nannies, being the absolute champions they are. I mean, they’re the heart of the entire kōhanga reo movement. The chief Nanny at our kōhanga did her work out of nothing more than love for the children and the language. No one ever paid her a single dollar for her time. The same goes for thousands of other Nannies and volunteers across the country. Without their unpaid work, the movement would collapse in on itself. Who would teach the kids? Who would look after the classrooms and grounds? I say this as the little demon who made the Nannies’ jobs just that little bit harder: they really are saints.

But what happens if you mess with their righteous work? In 2013, Māori Television’s Native Affairs broadcast an explosive investigation titled ‘Feathering the Nest’. It exposed credit card misspending, dodgy personal loan practices, and untraceable donations at a Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust Board subsidiary. The Mihi Forbes-led investigation found the subsidiary’s general manager Lynda Tawhiwhirangi put a wedding dress for her daughter, a Kardashian Kollection handbag for her son’s girlfriend, and a Trelise Cooper dress on the company credit card. She also made low interest and no interest loans worth $180,000 to some subsidiary staff and directors.

Crazy Rich Māoris, right?

The trouble is, the money Tawhiwhirangi was throwing down was never hers to spend. In a sworn statement to the High Court National Trust Board, CEO Angus Hartley said the wedding dress purchase was nothing more than a mix up. Tawhiwhirangi thought she was using her personal debit card, not the company plastic, and after realising the mistake she repaid the debt in full. That’s fine, but in her own sworn statement, Tawhiwhirangi offered a different reason. Her daughter forgot her own card so Mum did the bride-to-be a solid, using the company card to cover the wedding dress. If this were a one-off you could argue nothing to see here. If only.

Kōhanga Reo, or ‘language nests’, are early childhood pre-schools delivered in te reo Māori. The first Kōhanga was opened in April 1982. Image:  Archives New Zealand – Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga

In the 15 months worth of credit card records from Te Pātaka Ōhanga (TPO), the subsidiary, Native Affairs found weekend spend ups at shops like Noel Leeming and Uncle Bills. One weekend, Tawhiwhirangi spent hundreds of dollars on lamps for her work office and her mother-in-law, the movement superwoman Dame Iritana Tawhiwhiranga, and spent hundreds more two weeks later to help furnish her home office. In many cases, the two Tawhiwhirangi’s were responsible for ticking off each other’s credit card spending: Lynda as general manager and Dame Iritana as a TPO director. This is exactly what they tell you not to do in business school, but it was the done thing at head office for reasons that were never quite clear.

Again, this is fine if it were a one-off. Furnishing the home office is a stretch, but it’s a defensible business expense. But drawing out $1,000 to koha at a staff meeting you never attend? Taken together each spend amounts to – using Native’s words – a “culture of extravagance”. At the same time, kōhanga at the frontline were “struggling to provide the basics”. Paint peeling from the walls, overgrown lawns, and decade-old materials were still in use. Language nests across the country were in crisis with the Waitangi Tribunal urging the government to urgently boost funding to avoid “3,000 mokopuna… losing their kōhanga reo buildings.”

This is why the Nannies and nearly everyone else in te ao Māori were absolutely fuming after Feathering the Nest went to air. Kaiako at the flaxroots were pointing out how they have to keenly monitor every little spend, right down to milk and bread for the Nannies’ morning tea. But standards at head office were far, far looser. Summing up the feeling in Waiariki, Graham Cameron wrote that the National Trust Board’s actions – or rather, their inactions – were a “betrayal”.

“Get rid of the Board. Change the trust deed. Get the flow of money to local kōhanga reo moving to meet the desperate needs there.”

Then-Labour MP Shane Jones, former Green co-leader Metiria Turei, and ex-Mana Movement leader Hone Harawira all agreed the Board should, in Jonesy’s words, “take the opportunity to renew itself.”

In the hours after Native’s broadcast it seemed impossible for all eight life members on the Board to continue. But in the classic manner of rich and powerful people, they largely went to ground. No resignations. No promises to do better. The Board’s lawyers took Native’s producers to the Broadcasting Standards Authority. They lost. That made it 2-0 to Native after the Board’s earlier (and disastrous) effort to injunct Feathering the Nest in the High Court. After failing hard via formal means, this left one tactic: go after Mihi Forbes and the investigation team itself. Willie Jackson and John Tamihere, RadioLive broadcasters at the time, said the story was “Māori bashing” (don’t you have to be a Pākehā to Māori bash?).

Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust Board vs Māori Television Service BSA decision. 30 May 2014.

But it was Whānau Ora minister Tariana Turia who made the key intervention, publishing an extraordinary press release calling the investigation an “attack” on the kōhanga reo movement. She mused that Māori Television had lost sight of its original purpose as if that purpose were to blow kisses to the most important people in Māori society. Two years later, Te Iti Kahurangi would echo that sentiment targeting Māori Television and Native Affairs on the Te Matatini stage for running “negative” stories. To me it was clear what was happening: the Māori elite was lining up at one end to defend its own, while ordinary Māori were lining up at the other to demand some – any – accountability.

Yet the National Trust Board were having none of it, brushing off the controversy as a “private” matter. The Trust Board isn’t a government department, after all, meaning private rather than public standards probably apply. But Turia’s ministerial intervention meant neither the government nor the Trust Board were in any position to credibly argue that Feathering the Nest was anything less than political. Media pressure was mounting too – the story made that rare crossover from Māori media to mainstream media – making John Key apprehensive. Appearing on TV3 the morning after the story went to air, the usually pretty relaxed Prime Minister said anyone found misusing public money would have “the book thrown at them”.

That left education minister Hekia Parata no choice. After a late night meeting with the Trust Board she sent in the global consultancy firm EY to open the books. The problem was she sent their team in with a blindfold. The narrow terms of reference meant EY had no power to investigate TPO, the subsidiary where personal items were put on the company credit card and personal loans made to directors and staff. Instead, the terms of reference meant the consultants could only investigate the National Trust Board. In other words, some of the world’s most expensive investigators were sent in to examine an entity and people against whom no allegations were made.

As you might expect, EY came back in March 2014 clearing the National Trust Board of the things they were never accused of. Parata called a press conference to break the news. But the day before, Toni Waho, a National Trust Board member, wrote to associate education minister Pita Sharples alerting him to further allegations made against TPO. The allegations were not made public at the time – all we knew was they concerned further “misspending” – but they were sufficiently serious to force Sharples and Parata into an embarrassing u-turn when staff briefed them. Twelve hours after the first presser, the minister held another. This time announcing the Serious Fraud Office were going in.

After EY’s blind man’s bluff report, no one was expecting much from the SFO. Add to that no one was accusing TPO or the Trust Board of running a fraud (that is, a deception).  Instead, the accusations were about the straight up misuse of public funds, such as the Trust Board paying one of its own members an off the books “koha” worth $50,000 (more than double the median income for Māori that year). The appropriate investigator in these circumstances was the auditor-general. But the AG never got the call-up. This is where you could argue conspiracy – that Parata sending in the wrong team twice was an attempt to protect her mates on the Board – but I suspect it was just a simple cock-up.

“Blundering”, as Colin Espiner put in a brutal column for Stuff.

Still, it was all extremely fishy, and the Nannies didn’t need an official to tell them it stunk. They knew head office was sitting on $13m in cash reserves at the same time flaxroot kōhanga were struggling to meet rent. And they knew the Māori establishment was in a rolling maul and doing everything they could to frustrate Native Affairs. One month after the EY report and SFO referral, Māori Television journalists were banned from the Te Kōhanga Reo National Hui. The Trust Board’s communications adviser told them it was because “they hate you”. Hilariously, the Board forgot to ban other media and Newshub’s Tova O’Brien ended up asking the exact same questions Māori Television was meaning to.

Less funny, though, was new Māori Television CEO Paora Maxwell going on RNZ’s Mediawatch in November 2014 to criticise the “tone” of Feathering the Nest. For many observers, it was the first sign someone was going in to deal with Native Affairs for investigating the “wrong people”. One year earlier, prominent Trust Board members had made approaches to their colleagues on the Māori Television Board complaining about Native’s coverage. To his credit, the outgoing CEO Jim Mather (now husband of Feathering the Nest’s producer Annabelle Lee) was having none of it, but staff had suspicions that Maxwell would take a different line on editorial matters.  Those suspicions were realised in November with Maxwell apparently putting a stop to Hone Harawira appearing on Native’s final show for the year.

This came four months after the SFO released its report clearing TPO of any criminal offending, seemingly putting the various kōhanga controversies to bed. But it was impossible to shake the feeling something else was going on. In June 2015 Māori Television’s news and current affairs boss, Maramena Roderick, made a “scheduling” decision and took a Whānau Ora special off air. That decision came hours after Māori Development Minister Te Ururoa Flavell met Maxwell in a private meeting. Insiders said the Minister’s office was pushing hard to exclude Whānau Ora critic Winston Peters from the special.

Twelve hours after announcing an EY report had cleared the Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust Board of misspending, new allegations by Board member Toni Waho forced Education Minister Hekia Parata to send in the Serious Fraud Office. Image: Getty

What did that Whānau Ora decision have to do with Native’s kōhanga coverage? Well, at the same time the station’s bosses were delaying another Mihi Forbes-led story investigating the Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust Board. This time an exclusive interview with Toni Waho, the former Trust Board member who wrote to Hekia Parata outlining further allegations against TPO and its directors. Roderick was apparently arguing to withhold the story for legal reasons, even though it had clearance from their lawyers. Native was pushing to go ahead.

In polite terms, this is “editorial interference”. In impolite terms, it’s a rat fuck. To myself and others, it really did seem as if the Māori elite was doing everything they could to protect the Trust Board from further scrutiny: EY’s one-hand-tied-behind-its-back report, the baffling SFO referral, and Maxwell’s power plays. It was an intolerable position for a journalist, and Mihi Forbes – the frontwoman for both Native Affairs and Feathering the Nest – went on to resign in June 2015. Her producers Annabelle Lee and Adrian Stevanon, reporters Jodi Ihaka and Ruwani Perera, and other backroom staff all left by year’s end too. They joined Julian Wilcox and Carol Hirschfield who handed in their notices shortly after Maxwell’s appointment in April.

It was a ruthless walk out.

But before Forbes and her team left they secured one final concession: the Waho interview would go to air. In it, Waho – at this point an ex-board member – told his side of the story. He wrote to the education minister out of commitment and love for the movement, he said. And at no point did he bring the movement or Board into “disrepute” as his colleagues were arguing when they made the decision to dismiss him. It was a moving and very personal interview, and an infuriating one too. New allegations came to light, including $111,000 paid in directors fees to Kiingi Tuiheitia even though he was never a director. The Trust Board also paid out $800,000 in 2007 for “termination” fees. As a trade unionist, I know termination fees often mean “go quietly” fees. Good for some, eh?

In a way, it was ironic that Waho was speaking out against the Board. When Feathering the Nest broke in October 2013 he was the spokesperson his colleagues sent out to run defence. But behind the agreed lines were serious differences within the Board and with TPO. The subsidiary’s directors – three of whom were National Trust Board members – were preparing to summarily dismiss Lynda Tawhiwhirangi. The TPO general manager wasn’t going to go quietly, though, and in a shocking attempt to win a handsome exit package, Tawhiwhirangi’s advocate and husband, Rākai Tawhiwhirangi – Dame Iritana’s son – made a list of further allegations against TPO. He said he would keep the allegations private if the directors met his demand for an $800,000 payout.

Using confidential information obtained in the course of your wife’s employment and threatening to use the media as leverage is quite something. It’s also utterly wrong. But it was enough to seemingly spook the Board, many of whom said in their December 2013 meeting that they were in favour of TPO directors returning to the negotiating table. Under cross-examination in Court, Sir Timoti Karetu, a Board member at the time, conceded that the so-called “Rākai list” was a “huge political risk that needed to be managed”. But Waho made a different call arguing on the side of the TPO directors (of which he was not one). Dismiss Tawhiwhirangi and deal with the fallout.

After all, parts of the Rākai list were nothing new. One allegation was TPO making loans to Board members, something the public already knew. But there were also other allegations that could, according to the legal advice Waho sought, “disclose criminal activity”. It was the Board’s duty, he said in Court, to alert the relevant authorities. If the Board couldn’t agree to do that as one, then he’d do it himself. The Board didn’t agree, and so Waho did it himself, writing to Parata and Sharples in March 2014. The ministers made the call to the SFO. The Board made moves to dismiss Waho for bringing it into “disrepute”.

Now two things baffle me here. First, that the Board thought it was on solid ground dismissing Waho. In the High Court, Justice Clark found “no objectively supportable factual foundation for asserting Mr. Waho brought the Trust into disrepute”. In writing to the responsible ministers, he was acting consistently with his contractual and “fiduciary duties” (i.e. his duties as a trustee). And second, that the actual Rākai allegations “were not referred to the SFO for investigation,” to quote Justice Clark again. Instead, the SFO went in investigating unrelated and ancillary matters. It’s worth asking the question again: conspiracy or cock-up?

I’m still leaning towards cock-up. In public, Parata and Sharples were taking a moderate line on the Trust Board and TPO’s actions, trying to convince the movement’s leaders and its critics to step back from the edge. But in private there were very serious concerns. Both ministers were pushing for the Ministry of Education to renegotiate its procurement agreement with the Trust Board. And in a brutal investigation in 2015, Internal Affairs found “gross mismanagement” in how TPO managed its credit cards, its financial systems, its loan system, and its koha policy. According to the investigators’ report, some TPO activities weren’t advancing an exclusively charitable purpose. The tax department put the subsidiary on its watchlist.

In hindsight, Waho’s interview with Native Affairs and his decision to take his dismissal to the High Court were the turning points for the Trust Board. The Ministry of Education was closely monitoring its contract with the Board. Internal Affairs were on TPO’s back, issuing it with a formal warning. And worse, so too was the Inland Revenue Department. The Board’s position was entirely untenable, and in Waho’s High Court hearing in 2016 it came out that all of his former colleagues were planning to step down.

Finally.

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That decision – and the decision made at the National Hui in 2014 to amend the Trust Deed, removing clauses like life membership on the Board – were crucial to prove to the government that the National Trust was in a fit state to govern and administer the movement again. The Coalition Government took a close look, examining the new Deed and systems, and agreed that coming to the rescue with a $32m funding boost that will lift the Nannies and kaiako off the minimum wage, improve the movement’s building stock, and upgrade IT systems. Were the old Board and systems in place it’s almost certain the government would not have come forward with any extra money.

But what about the body count it took to get to this point? Not only did the entire Trust Board go, but they took Mihi Forbes and almost the entire Native Affairs team with them. Toni Waho paid a terrible price. It’s an infuriating lesson in how some Māori institutions and the Māori elite who run them work. They protect their own, lawyering up in 2013 and 2014 and spending $1.2m and $1.5m respectively on legal fees. They use informal channels in an attempt to silence journalists and they run one line in public – “all above board, nothing to see here” – while taking a different view in private. They negotiate a softball external review with the responsible minister (the EY review) that prevents the investigators from looking at the actual claims of wrongdoing. They tell people that they “hate” their critics.

I’m not exactly a kōhanga expert, but this is one thing I do know as a kōhanga alumnus: if the Nannies from my kōhanga were in charge, none of this would’ve ever happened.


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