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Email Espionage At Wellington City Council?

Allegations of blackmail and espionage at Wellington City Council? Sounds ridiculous, perhaps, but there appears to be some substance behind the latest contretemps between the spurned independent councillors and the Labour-Wellington Alive coalition.

Certainly it is being taken seriously by the city bureaucracy who have launched an internal investigation led by Ernst and Young chartered accountant Warren Allen to find out how councillors apparently private email came to be used in the media by their political opponents.

The story reared its head in public earlier this week when Labour councillor Alick Shaw released a private email from independent councillor Mary Varnham to the Evening Post. The email allegedly indicated a certain degree of political cynicism concerning income related rents for city council housing among Varnham and her allies on council.

Income related rents, for the uninitiated, are a hot topic in Wellington local body politics because the Labour Party campaigned on reinstating them before the last election and then promptly dropped them after entering what some regard as an unholy alliance with the right-leaning Wellington Alive group.

The next stage to the saga involved councillors Mary Varnham, Judy Siers, Helene Ritchie and Sue Kedgley, the recipients of the publicised email, putting their heads together to figure out how the email got out.

After wracking their brains, and presumably obtaining each others assurances that they were not the leaking parties, they then sought legal advice. They then swore affidavits that they weren't the leaks and wrote to the council, Mayor and city management demanding an explanation for what has happened.

At this point in time the urgently requested report from Mr Allen is due back in a week's time.

The offended councillors for their part have been given absolute assurances by city managers that their emails are secure, not that they trust the advice particularly.

Scoop understands that in discussions with the councillors city CEO Gary Poole went further and said that if it was found that a council employee had been accessing and using their emails for political purposes it would be a offence subject to "instant dismissal".

While the issue is being roundly played down by council officials at present a number of questions are raised by this latest contretemps - not the least being what the ethics are of using apparently private emails publicly to attack ones political opponents?

Asked where he had received the email(s) from by Scoop today Councillor Shaw was not particularly forthcoming.

He said he would not say where the email had come from. Nor would he say whether it had been acquired legitimately or illegitimately.

Asked whether he was cooperating with the internal inquiry he replied that this was a question which only the "gentleman conducting the inquiry" could answer. However he did say he had met with Mr Allen .

"What I am telling you is that you can make no assumptions whatsoever about the emails," Mr Shaw said.

Later in the conversation Mr Shaw observed that he had another "gem" from an apparently confidential email, which he then quoted from. It said, "Don't tell Pep [councillor Bryan Pepperell], he'll tell [councillor] Sue Piper".

By way of background to what this means, councillor Bryan Pepperell is an ally of the offended councillors and councillor Piper is a Labour councillor in Alick Shaw's camp.

Which of course further begs the question just how many confidential emails are in Shaw's possession? Only one thing is certain at this stage, he isn't saying, not to Scoop anyway.

At this point Scoop decided it was worth inquiring further into the background of the debate.

According to reliable sources Scoop has discovered that this issue in fact first arose in June when councillor Sue Kedgley was allegedly shown a series of apparently confidential email by the mayor Mark Blumsky.

Scoop understands that the council's investigator has been informed that the Mayor then made a comment to councillor Kedgley to the effect that, "if you accuse us of collusion I have more of these emails and they can be used publicly."

When contacted about this today a spokesman for the Mayor initially responded saying, "you must be mistaken - I have no further comment to make."

He later added, through his spokesman, "I have spoken to the investigator and told him all I know. Until the report comes out next week I will make no further comment."

Off the record some council sources were more forthcoming and the following is a selection of off-the-record views on the email debate.

"They [councillors Varnham, Kedgley et al] are incredibly embarrassed about what they said to each other and now they are trying to wash it around a bit."

"My understanding is that Shaw came across the email because it was left on a machine, it contained things which he thought should be made public."

Scoop will be very interested to read the report of the investigator when it is finally released next week. Watch this space...

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