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Privileges Committee Hearing on Release of Journalist's Info

Privileges Committee Hearing on Release of Journalist's Information - 21-22 August 2013

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By Hamish Cardwell

Geoff Thorn – Day Two of Privileges Committee

Former Parliamentary Services general manager Geoff Thorn faced more questions from senior ministers at Parliament's Privileges Committee meeting in Wellington today.

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The Committee met to hear submissions from those involved in the release of a journalist's emails and phone and swipe card records to the Henry Inquiry after a leaked report into the GCSB was published in the Dominion Post.

Mr Thorn told the committee he did not consider himself a scapegoat and that he had resigned because he let himself, Parliamentary Services and ministers down by not putting good systems in place.

He was asked whether anyone had asked to step down and he replied that he would prefer not to answer that question. Committee chairperson Chris Finlayson ruled that the question was not relevant.

Mr Thorn said he he required consent from ministers to release their information and that Mr Eagleson had convinced him that the ministers had given their permission. He then authorised the release of Mr Dunne's records but he did not have a “high level of comfort about it”.

He had previously turned down requests from the inquiry for metadata, but released the information when Mr Eagleson became involved.

“In hindsight I should not have put as much weight on his requests as I did.”

He said he did not want to “second guess” the kind of information the the Henry inquiry asked for, and was surprised to hear Mr Henry say yesterday that Parliamentary Services had the responsibility to determine which information to provide to the inquiry.

He did not seek Ms Vance's consent when he released the swipe card records because he made a judgement that the investigation was a security issue as classified material had been accessed by a journalist.

Labour minister David Parker said he had read the Parliamentary Services security policy and did not see where how it justified giving out Vance's swipe card records.

Mr Thorn replied that the policy refers to security of people, property and information and that that was commensurate with allowing the release of information.

The distinction was that the material was handed to a third party, he said.

It was unusual to provide swipe card information, with only five cases of it happening since 2008. Twice when people had asked for their own access records, once to the police as part of a criminal investigation into stolen items and twice as part of Henry inquiry - one for Ms Vance and one for Mr Dunne, he said.

Mr Thorn said he had never met Mr Henry and only spoke with someone from the inquiry on one occasion.

David Henry


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David Henry, who headed the inquiry into the leak, spoke first on Wednesday 21 August and said he had only sought information that was necessary to for the inquiry to find out who leaked the report.

He said it was up to Parliamentary Services to determine what information was appropriate to hand over to the inquiry.

“How they [Parliamentary Services] organised [it] is entirely a matter for them.”

It was reasonable to think that they knew what they were doing, he said.

In retrospect it would have been wise to seek the guidance of the speaker around the issues of privacy, he said.

He said he was not disappointed in the way he handled the inquiry and that he conducted it fairly and professionally.

Mr Henry faced questions from members of the Committee which included senior minsters from National, Labour, NZ First, Act, Greens, and the Maori Party.


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Wayne Eagleson

Chief of staff to the Prime Minster Wayne Eagleson said the PM required all ministers to cooperate with the inquiry.

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He said the decision to initiate an inquiry was undertaken “fairly quickly” while the Prime Minister was in China. There was no template or recent precedent for that kind of inquiry.


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Mr Eagleson said he did not speak with Parliamentary Services about swipe cards, or the specifics of the type of information the inquiry was after.

When the inquiry began he did not think that it had anything to do with a journalist, rather, he gave his authorisation to look into the communications of ministers and their staff.

Mr Eagleson was asked if he was aware at any time that records of people other than ministers was being sought from Parliamentary Services.

He replied that late in the piece he was aware that a journalist's swipe cards records were accessed.


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Andrew Kibblewhite

Chief executive of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Andrew Kibblewhite said he was surprised, given the terms of reference of the inquiry, that Mr Henry had requested access to Andrea Vance's swipe card logs.


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Mr Kibblewhite, who co-wrote the terms of reference, said the inquiry was launched because the leak was a “serious matter”.

“It was a serious report... and our confidence had been breached.”

He said he was only briefed in a general way on the day-to-day operations of the inquiry, and did not have any direct knowledge of the arrangements for information made between the inquiry and Parliamentary Services.

The purpose of the inquiry was to look into the potential unauthorised disclosure of the GCSB report by ministers and their staff - not by journalists.

Under questioning from Winston Peters Mr Kibblewhite said he did not think the Henry inquiry had been a botch-up. The inquiry had provided a great deal of confidence that staff at the GCSB and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had not leaked the report.


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Geoff Thorn


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Geoff Thorn resigned from his role as general manager of Parliamentary Services in the fallout from breach of Ms Vance's privacy.

He said that at no point did anyone from the Henry inquiry approach him about the terms of reference and that this may have been a contributing factor in the errors that happened.

There were no rules around the release of Parliamentary access logs and that those kinds of issues tended to be dealt with by convention. Building access fell under the purview of security and therefore giving the inquiry access to Ms Vance's swipe card records was permissible, he said.

He said he took his responsibility as the general manager of Parliamentary Services very seriously.

Mr Thorn will continue being questioned by the committee tomorrow morning.


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ENDS

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