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EPA head insists he did not mislead MPs

6:31 pm on 5 April 2018

Benedict Collins, Political Reporter

The head of the Environmental Protection Authority returned to Parliament today insisting he had not misled MPs about ministers interfering in the removal of the authority's controversial chief scientist.

Allan Freeth at Parliament today. Photo: RNZ / Benedict Collins

Allan Freeth had previously assured MPs he had not had any discussions with environment ministers regarding his chief scientist Jacqueline Rowarth, who resigned in February.

That position was called into question when Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage said she'd discussed Dr Rowarth with Dr Freeth - and said he'd told her he was aware of her concerns and was dealing with the issue.

This week, Ms Sage changed her story and, blaming her poor memory, said that conversation never happened - but not before Dr Freeth offered to reappear in front of MPs.

Today, Dr Freeth agreed with the minister's new story - that they had not discussed Jacqueline Rowarth.

However, he was asked by National's Nick Smith why he had apologised to ministers for Dr Rowarth's behaviour when the EPA was supposed to be independent.

The apology followed the chief scientist's criticism of a tax on irrigated water - which was a Labour Party election policy.

"I apologised to Ministers Parker and Sage on behalf of the EPA and there was no link at all, at that stage, between any comments made by Jacqueline and any discussion of (her) exit.

"I apologised for Jacqueline's specific criticism of government policy which was inappropriate for any staff member of the EPA."

National's Sarah Dowie asked Dr Freeth if a news article that was highly critical of Dr Rowarth and which Ms Sage had forwarded to him was code for "get rid of her".

"So I think it's entirely appropriate for the minister to raise any questions in regard to damage to the reputational neutrality of the EPA."

National's Todd Muller asked what repercussions there were for Dr Rowarth following the minister sending the article - but Dr Freeth said he wouldn't discuss staff matters.

Dr Freeth refused to tell MPs how much Dr Rowarth's exit package had been.

Dr Freeth also refused to be interviewed after the select committee.

Dr Rowarth did not respond to a request for comment.

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