Labour volunteer details alleged sexual assault by senior staffer

Alex Casey for The Spinoff

Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual assault that may upset some people.

A Labour party staffer is alleged to have committed a serious and sustained sexual assault on a 19-year-old volunteer early in 2018.

The volunteer told the Spinoff the assault was compounded by the resulting inquiry, during which the alleged perpetrator was not stood down from any duties, which included the supervision of Young Labour volunteers. The complaint process, undertaken entirely by people within the Labour Party, has left her feeling "angry, quite fearful and desperate". 

The alleged perpetrator has ties throughout the party hierarchy. The woman, who remains a member of the Labour Party, said the man's level of influence left her constantly frightened of the impact of speaking out.

Over the course of numerous in-depth interviews with The Spinoff, Sarah - whose name has been changed to protect her identity - detailed how she was pinned down and sexually assaulted at the man's home during a private meeting to discuss party business in early 2018. The process that followed, beginning in April 2018 during the post-Labour Camp review undertaken by Maria Berryman, has completely eroded her faith in the party.

Sarah is one of at least seven people who made formal complaints in relation to the individual, ranging from bullying, intimidation and sexual harassment through to sexual assault. She described him as having a "pretty senior and active" role in the party, and being well-connected with several high profile Labour MPs. The Spinoff understands that he remains working in parliament.

Sarah said she raised the allegations during an internal inquiry, with the investigating panel comprising three members of the New Zealand Council, the Labour Party's governing body. Sarah and the other complainants were invited to appear before the panel at a meeting held at the Labour Party's offices in Wellington. At the conclusion of the inquiry, after months with scant communication, the seven complainants all received an email from party president Nigel Haworth detailing the outcome of the internal investigation. "The recommendation was that no disciplinary action be taken in this case," he wrote. "The New Zealand Council has accepted this recommendation."

Across a series of interviews over recent weeks, Sarah laid out her experience with the staffer, and detailed the process that she and the other complainants underwent. The Spinoff has spoken at length to another of the complainants and viewed more than 100 documents, screengrabs and pieces of correspondence.

A lawyer acting for the Labour staffer did not respond to a request for comment. Detailed questions put to the Labour Party president and the prime minister's office were not answered, but a statement was provided in the name of Haworth.

"There is an appeal under way, being led by an experienced Queen's Counsel, that is reviewing the original investigation and its findings. That is the appropriate place for these issues to be considered," he said.

"It's important to be clear that none of the complaints the party investigated related to sexual assault. The person leading the original review made it clear to the complainants that the party would never be the appropriate body to handle allegations of that nature and that they would need to be investigated by the police.

"Given all these matters are subject to a current appeal process it isn't appropriate to comment further on them until the appeal is complete." 

Told that the party denied hearing a complaint during its investigation, Sarah was adamant that both in documents supplied and her testimony that they were. What follows is a full description of her experience.

Sarah told The Spinoff that the central incident took place during a work meeting at a private residence in early 2018. A month later allegations of sexual assault at a Labour summer camp surfaced. Labour announced it would conduct a review into the youth camp complaints, to be led by lawyer Maria Berryman. 

"We failed the young people who told us they had been hurt - this failure left them feeling abandoned and I am deeply sorry for that. It's not good enough, we let them down," Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister and Labour Party leader, said at the time. "We handled this very, very badly as a party ... Ultimately our focus as a party must be those young people. That's our focus, rather than focusing simply on the future of individual employees." 

The party appealed to any other victims who had experienced historical harassment or abuse at other Labour Party events. "We are open to taking up any of those complaints in a serious and effective manner," Nigel Haworth told media. "I want this to be a safe party where everyone can go to any event and be sure they won't be harassed or subjected to any of this treatment. It is utterly unacceptable." 

Encouraged by the invitation, Sarah began to weigh up whether to go through the process of sharing her own story with the inquiry. While the prospect filled her with dread, she decided to make contact. 

Her connection to the party had begun two years earlier, when she joined the Labour Party at university. "I felt like I was a part of a movement," she said. "It felt exciting, like I had found a place in alignment with my values." An ambitious young feminist, she was impressed by the strong women within Young Labour, leading the charge on abortion reform and advocating for survivors of sexual assault.

"I saw them as putting people first," she said. "There were a lot of good people doing a lot of good things."

Over the next year, Sarah immersed herself in the party as a volunteer, quickly gaining more recognition and responsibility. It was during this period that she first came into contact with the alleged perpetrator, who is several years her senior, and started to have correspondence and regular meetings with him. He was already established in a leadership position at Young Labour, and his star continued to rise in the party proper. 

It was soon clear his interest in her was not purely political or professional, she said. On a party trip in 2017, after a night of drinking, he spent time "coming up behind me, hugging me, grabbing me", she wrote in an April 2018 email to Maria Berryman, the lawyer leading the review. He also sent Sarah screenshots of explicit private messages exchanged with another party member, seen by The Spinoff, in which the pair fantasised about having sex with her. "I would feel manly if she was on her knees," he wrote. 

Early in 2018 he invited her to a private meeting at his home to prepare for an upcoming regional conference. "He said it was really important that I came," she said. "He made it feel like it was a part of my duties." She arrived around six o'clock, and sat in the lounge to watch television with the rest of the household. After the others went to bed, the pair were left alone and moved to work on party documents on a computer in the adjoining office. 

It was then that Sarah felt the mood start to shift. 

"I remember I was looking at the screen and I felt him lean down over me onto my shoulder." She initially ignored it and continued to ask questions about the documents they were looking at, keen to stay focussed on the work. Standing behind her, he placed one hand on her thigh, and the other under her shirt, she said. Feeling both his arms tightening around her body, she began to panic. 

"I tried to knock him off but he put me in a hold across here," she recounted, gesturing to her collarbone. He pulled her off the chair and onto the floor, keeping his arm and his body weight on top of her as she struggled, he said. "I remember him just saying, 'shhh,' and shushing me or telling me to be quiet without explicitly telling me, or he'd press his arm down on my windpipe."

Desperate to attract the attention of the rest of the household, Sarah banged her feet against the hardwood floors, she said. She recounted him pulling down her jeans, and the coldness of the floorboards against her bare skin. He aggressively groped her breasts, she said, before pulling her underwear down and violently penetrating her with his fingers. 

"I was just in total disbelief, struggling a lot and still trying to bang on the floor," she said, taking long pauses in her recollection. She continued to hit her feet on the ground through the attack, hoping to make as much noise as possible. "I just wanted someone to come upstairs. Anyone."

The assault lasted between 10 and 20 minutes, she said, before he rolled off her. "I was just lying there for ages and then tried to frantically put everything on. I grabbed my phone, I grabbed my USB [from] the computer. I was shaking, I couldn't speak." She told him that she had to go home. He asked her if she wanted to stay the night.

When she turned the corner of his street, Sarah started to cry. "I just broke down. I was too scared to stop moving, I just wanted to get out of there." Walking home in the dark, she tried to call a handful of people, but nobody answered. It was around 10pm.

She didn't stop once on the 25 minute walk. Her vagina felt "scratched up and in pain", her chest "swollen and bruised". She didn't tell her flatmates what happened, why she was unable to sleep that night. "I didn't shower until the next morning, which was absolutely awful. I felt really uncomfortable with my body. It didn't feel like it was mine."

The Spinoff has spoken to a source to whom Sarah related the experience a week after the attack. "She looked very stressed and I could tell she was quite tired," said the confidant. Sarah had broken down as she told the story. "She was pretty scared, she said she didn't want to talk to Labour. I started crying too. I didn't know how to comfort her and there was nothing that I could say to help her with what she was going through." 

Sarah didn't want to go to the police. She knew people who had been through the process and had told her how difficult it was, she said. "I thought about the amount of people who come forward and then the number who actually get convictions, and it just felt like it was going to be really hard." In the aftermath, she felt herself becoming more withdrawn and isolated, a shadow of the young, confident leader she used to be.

A month after the alleged assault, the Berryman review into the Labour camp assaults invited others who had experiences of sexual misconduct to come forward. "I thought I might as well deal with it with people I know and trust, and that was through the party."

She made contact with Berryman in April 2018, and, in an email shown to The Spinoff, described the incident on the party trip in detail. "There's more stuff that's happened since the Young Labour camp," Sarah wrote. She chose not to detail the more serious allegation, explaining in the email that she was "unsure how to process it or tell people" because of his power within the party. Sarah chose to detail a more "low-level" allegation, she told The Spinoff, because she was worried about who might see the email. "I was pretty paranoid and still trying to process what had happened." 

After a few brief exchanges, communication with Berryman dropped off until the following month, when she came back to Sarah explaining that she was working through the Labour summer camp before attending to any other complaints. 

Meanwhile the man who she says assaulted her continued to attend Labour meetings and events, which prompted several panic attacks and even bouts of nausea and vomiting. He was known to be a volatile personality, according to another Young Labour member spoken to by The Spinoff. During one particularly heated meeting, he shouted at her and later attempted to block the exit of the room, she said, prompting her to email concerns about what she saw as "predatory behaviour" directly to Nigel Haworth. She didn't detail the assault in the email to the Labour president, but alluded to being in severe distress. 

"I am struggling to be able to cope," she wrote.

Haworth responded the following day, and a meeting was arranged. In a private room at Wellington Central Library, Sarah told Haworth and the party's assistant general secretary, Dianna Lacy, about her encounters with the man, including the full extent of the sexual assault allegations, she said. "I got the sense that [Haworth] was pretty uncomfortable," she said, though Lacy seemed deeply concerned, and subsequently became the one person within Labour she felt able to rely on.

As Haworth's response to The Spinoff makes clear, however, the party strongly disputed that they were at any point told sexual assault was being alleged.

In the aftermath, a panel was set up by the NZ Council, Labour's highest governing body, to investigate the claims. The panel comprised three members of the NZ Council, chaired by an Auckland-based lawyer. Sarah and six other party members who had lodged complaints were later asked to attend a hearing in March. Each interview slot was an hour long, despite the claims frequently involving incidents and observations of behaviour spanning years. 

On the morning of the investigation hearings, conducted in early March at Labour's Wellington HQ, Fraser House on Willis Street, Sarah sent her pre-interview notes through to both a member of the panel and Lacy, who was opening up the building that day but did not attend the interviews. Sarah asked the panel member to print them out, a task he delegated to Lacy, who, Sarah said, printed four copies. 

Seen by The Spinoff, her notes clearly state that she experienced a sexual assault in February 2018 after being invited to his home under the guise of a private, work-related meeting. "I relaxed, I let my guard down, I thought I was safe," her notes read, before detailing how he grabbed at her breasts and pulled down her pants. She was nervous about her interview, and read from the notes verbatim, she said, relating her sexual assault "about a quarter of the way through".

The notes anticipated questions about why she had not come forward previously or gone to the police. "As for why I didn't report," she wrote in her notes, "I did." She had attempted to raise the individual's behaviour with members of her party branch, she said, but he had responded angrily, it had "fizzled out". 

"I was scared," she wrote. "I still am scared. This man holds a large amount of influence within the party." He would boast, she added, about "his close relationship" with a Cabinet minister. 

A senior Labour Party source has told The Spinoff that the panel members are emphatic that they at no point heard any of the complainants make an allegation of having been subject to sexual assault - and that they would not have ignored it had anyone done so. Sarah, however, insists that she read her notes aloud to the panel, and that included the allegation of sexual assault. 

The proceedings felt rushed, Sarah said, and the questions seemed to focus on who knew about the allegations, rather than what happened. "It was like it was more liability management than investigation into claims," she said. The panel said there would be an opportunity for follow-up interviews, but there was no mention of how or when, she said. 

Another of the complainants interviewed that day, Jamie - not his real name - summarised the panel process as "completely inadequate". His allegation centred on an attempted physical assault by the same man at a Young Labour function, an outburst which he said led him to quit the party the following day, after being a committed member for four years. 

Of the investigation, Jamie said: "I felt like I was being rushed out of the room." 

He would later write to Haworth: "It is like the party has learned nothing in the wake of the Young Labour Summer School ... The party has let down every single person who decided to come forward with their story, an experience which seems to repeat itself time and time again."

The complainants had been told they would be able to look at the investigating panel's notes on the interviews, described as "testimony" by the party, to check for accuracy.

On April 26, a month and a half after the interviews, Sarah wrote to the three members of the panel saying that the staffer at the centre of the allegations had approached her and said he had read the testimonies. Sarah was unnerved, as she had still yet to receive hers. On May 22 she asked again to see the "testimony". The chair of the panel wrote back: "I am happy to provide a copy.". Again, she did not receive her notes, and eventually the panel made its decision without her having had a chance to check that they accurately represented her experience.

Had Sarah had an opportunity to review the notes, which are handwritten, in sometimes-ambiguous bullet points, she would have told them what was missing: any reference to the sexual assault she said she had suffered. Instead, she did not receive the notes until July 15 - a full 10 days after Haworth had written saying there would be no action taken against the man, and that there was no appeals process.

Throughout the process, the man at the centre of the allegations continued to appear at party events that Sarah was required to attend due to her role within the party. At a party conference, she experienced another panic attack in the bathroom after being in the same room as both him and Nigel Haworth. "It made me wish I wasn't involved in the party, it made me feel like I wanted to leave," she said. "It felt like it wasn't my place any more. It felt like it was his place."

In late April, Sarah sent an email to the three members of the investigating panel seeking an update on the inquiry. In the email - receipt of which was acknowledged by one of the panel - she stressed "the seriousness of the situation here, an accusation of sexual assault, manipulation, bullying and emotional abuse of several young women in the party. All revolving around his power over women at Labour events."

She also flagged his expected presence at a Young Labour event that night, where he would be holding a swipe card to provide entry for participants. Some members, she said, were "freaking out and scared to attend". She added: "Really hoping this isn't a party thing that fizzles away without response or action."

Seventy-one days after the interviews at the Labour offices, Sarah received an email from Haworth announcing that a conclusion to the investigation had been reached, and a report was to be delivered to the NZ Council on June 15. 

Sarah was alarmed at the news that they were nearing a conclusion, especially given she was still waiting for a copy of her own testimony. "I'm just completely lost at the lack of communication," she replied by email on May 21. "I feel threatened. I feel insecure. I feel unsafe." 

Jamie wrote to Haworth separately after learning the investigating panel had completed their work. "I'm sorry but it is completely unacceptable. It has been over a month since we came to submit on this issue and there hasn't been a single follow-up to us as a group," he said.

"We haven't received a single update from the panel. No support has been offered throughout this process... I have had no one reach out to me from the party since making my submission to the committee."

Just over a month later, another email from Haworth appeared in their inboxes. 

"I am writing to let you know that NZ Council, at its latest meeting, received and endorsed a report from the investigating panel," he wrote. "The recommendation was that no disciplinary action was to be taken in this case. Council accepts this recommendation."

Sarah said she was "broken" by the verdict. "We went through this whole thing, saying over and over again the stories of what happened, his abuse of power, and we were just stuck," she said. "There was this whole room of people that were just acting like they were all family members again and nobody wants to talk about the guy who has been accused of sexual assault."

A month after they were told of the investigation's conclusion, Sarah received the panel's notes, which were taken during their meeting and she understands were the only official record of her complaint. She was "frustrated and disappointed" by what they contained. "I was annoyed, there were a lot of mistakes and things that hadn't been followed up - this was our one chance to be heard and listened to and they screwed up." 

The three pages of handwritten notes, seen by The Spinoff, mentioned her "relationship" with the man multiple times. "Those wouldn't have been the words I would have used," said Sarah. "We never dated, we were never intimate, there was nothing."

When it was put to Sarah that those involved in the investigation didn't believe she was making an allegation of sexual assault, she said she found that impossible to fathom. "I opened the interview reading through my timeline and my testimony." 

Reading the panel's handwritten version of her "testimony" back, said Sarah, she failed to see any reflection of her experience. "No way they could have found anything from this," she said. "It doesn't cover anything."

News of the allegations related to the Labour staffer was broken in early August by Newshub, when Tova O'Brien reported, "the Labour Party has been forced to review an internal investigation into bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault by a Labour staffer." The pressure mounted after National MP Paula Bennett revealed that one of the complainants had approached her. "The woman has taken the extraordinary step of contacting me because they are not being listened to," she told Newstalk ZB. "They are having panic attacks and are anxious."

Neither Jamie nor Sarah was involved in the approach to Bennett. Her involvement made a difference, however, said Jamie. They all wanted to see the silence broken, and "the deputy leader of the opposition asking questions and making a story out of it was a good way of it happening." 

Following a study of the process undertaken by the party solicitor, Haworth told the complainants the NZ Council had decided to "offer the opportunity to appeal the outcome of the recent conduct investigation". Just over a month after writing to say that no disciplinary action would be taken and there was no appeals process offered in the party constitution, the NZ Council had "decided that, in all of the circumstances, natural justice supports the provision of such an opportunity".

The appeal would be conducted, he said, by Maria Dew QC. The complainants were given nine days to decide whether they would opt in. 

For Sarah, the offer felt too little, too late. "Even now that the appeal has been offered, we're so exhausted," she said. "It felt like we had turned to all the right people but nobody was backing us up." 

Since the offer of an opportunity to appeal, the group of complainants has engaged an independent lawyer who has sought an extension to the nine day deadline and is working on their behalf to retrieve key documents from the initial investigation. "We want to make sure the first investigation was fully concluded and we have all the information to make the right decision," said Sarah.

The process, which began with an approach to Berryman in April of 2018, is ongoing. The alleged perpetrator is believed to remain at work at parliament, in the Labour leader's office.

Sarah is still healing. "This entire thing was just a mountain of trauma and left so many people incredibly bruised and vulnerable," she said. If her experience results in anything, she hopes it will be for better support within the party for victims who come forward. "I don't mean an 0800 therapy line and I don't just mean providing legal support if the complainant agrees to incredibly stringent confidentiality rules within the party.

"What matters more to me is that the people who screwed this up are able to learn from their mistakes. People come and go but if the process isn't set up right then in 20 years we're still going to see this repeat. 

"Nothing is going to change unless the party does."

Where to find help and support: 

The Spinoff