Commission 'acted unreasonably' in MFAT leak report

Derek Leask (Supplied)
Derek Leask (Supplied)

A former top diplomat says he's been vindicated following a damning report into the State Services Commission (SSC), which found the SSC "acted unreasonably" against him.

Ombudsman Ron Paterson has also called on the SSC to apologise and to compensate former top diplomat Derek Leask, previously under suspicion for leaking sensitive Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) documents to Labour's Phil Goff.

In 2012, Mr Goff was given documents about a pending restructure of MFAT, including job cuts, which embarrassed the Government.

They showed senior diplomats were strongly opposed to the plan to close embassies, and that the Government ordered then chief executive John Allen to review the idea.

Dame Paula Rebstock was appointed to find the source of the leak, pointing the finger at three people -- including a former Labour researcher and Mr Leask. However, the report found no conclusive evidence of where the information came from.

In a hugely embarrassing backfire, the leaker turned out to be a "temp" working in State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie's office.

Long-serving public servant Nigel Fyfe outed himself as one of those under suspicion, while Mr Leask was also identified.

The report, released on Thursday, has formally recommended the SSC offer a public apology to Mr Leask, reimburse him for actual and reasonable expenses, compensate him for harm to his reputation and review guidance for future inquiries.

Mr Leask welcomed the findings, saying it helped clear his name.

"The 2013 findings against me and against other MFAT staff have been rubbished. It is good to have the slur on my reputation removed. Today's findings by the ombudsman go beyond the vindication of my actions," he says.

He believes the way the SSC acted is of "great public concern" because, among other things, the inquiry team "ignored the basic requirements of natural justice".

"In reality this meant I was forced to defend myself against accusations which weren't part of the original inquiry and which were proved wrong.

"I was ambassador in Brussels. I am very used to dealing with big and difficult people and organisations. And I know if you use argument and rule of law you can get somewhere.  And you can win, even if you are a small country, even if you are a small player like me fighting the SSC." 

He says the way the investigation was run led him to complain to Mr Paterson.

"And now I am finally vindicated. It has been a long fight, but worth it."

But while his name had been cleared, "my worry has been that others who wrongly faced the power and resources of the public service machine may not have the same capacity and good fortune I had to deal with wrongful accusations".

Mr Goff criticised the inquiry, calling it a witch-hunt and a waste of money.

"This was a stain on their character and reputation. They were hard-working, competent civil servants with absolute integrity and they were treated shamefully," he told Newshub.

He believes Mr Leask and Mr Fyfe need compensation.

"They effectively lost their jobs, they spent hundreds of thousands on legal fees, they and their families went through absolute hell, none of which was deserved. Of course there has to be an apology and of course they're deserving of compensation."

Mr Rennie has accepted the investigation into Mr Leask "could have been better".

However, he did not agree with all of Mr Paterson's report, particularly that the findings into Mr Leask were outside the terms of reference.

"Notwithstanding our reservations, the points made by the ombudsman will be considered during the development of any future terms of reference and we will strengthen our guidance in this area," Mr Rennie says.

He believes the recommendations are a "pragmatic way" for both parties to move on, but would not comment further because discussions about potential redress with Mr Leask are ongoing.

Prime Minister John Key referred all questions about the report to the SSC, but said Ms Rebstock would still be getting work from the Government.

"She's made one mistake, but she's done a lot of work for the Government over a long period of time and in successive governments in a variety of different roles.

"On the balance we'd say clearly people need to take some learnings from it, but I don't think it's terminal in terms of her capacity to do work for the Government."

But the Green Party says Mr Paterson's report shows the Government spent taxpayer dollars on a "politically motivated attack" to distract from the pending public sector cuts.

"This is further evidence that Paula Rebstock is being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to pursue the Government's agenda at the expense of justice, fairness and good process," global affairs spokesperson Kennedy Graham says.

"This fiasco began with Murray McCully's poorly managed change programme at MFAT and has spiralled out of control since then."

The Public Sector Association has welcomed the report, saying natural justice needs to be the priority in government inquiries "regardless of how embarrassing their findings may be".


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