The Human Rights Commissioner's "safety and security" was "guaranteed by the Mongrel Mob" at an event he attended in May organised by the gang's Waikato chapter, new documents show.
Correspondence between the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and the Waikato Mongrel Mob Kingdom provided to Newshub reveals how Paul Hunt's attendance at the gang gathering was organised.
It shows there was agreement no press releases were to be published prior to the event, media were to be "barred" access and members would be "given guidance around their use of social media during and after the event".
Simeon Brown, National's Police spokesperson, believes the HRC was trying to keep the meeting off-the-radar, but that's been rejected by the commission, which also says Hunt had no concerns for his safety.
Other attendees at the hui, which took place on May 1 at a Waikato Mongrel Mob gang pad in Hamilton, included Greens co-leader Marama Davidson, Green MP Elizabeth Kerekere and Anjum Rahman, from the NZ Islamic Women's Council. It included a panel and Q+A session, with key themes being human rights and discrimination.
The Waikato chapter says it's attempting to reform and move away from other branches of the gang. Over the last year, police say several members have been charged in relation to drug crimes. However, the chapter's leader Sonny Fatupaito denies his members were involved.
But Brown said after the event that Hunt and Davidson's visit was "astonishing" and disrespectful, while ACT's Nicole McKee said it was "deeply insulting to all the victims and the lives ruined by the Mob".
Both the Commissioner and the Greens co-leader defended their attendance by saying it was important to engage with the community and discuss their experiences.
'Needs to answer questions'
According to the correspondence, Hunt's attendance came about after Waikato Mongrel Mob public relations liaison Louise Hutchinson approached the HRC in December, asking if it was possible for him to do a presentation in 2021.
Hunt responded, saying he had "followed your work with interest for some time" and, in January, discussions began about a meeting.
In the days prior to the May 1 event, there were conversations with the Mongrel Mob about the details, with Hutchinson on April 28 being emailed a summary reiterating what had been discussed on a call.
Among the subjects listed was that the "safety and security of Chief Commissioner Paul Hunt and other HRC attendees will be guaranteed by the Mongrel Mob".
The email said the Mongrel Mob would "not publish any press releases prior to the event or during it" and that the HRC and gang would consult each other on any subsequent releases as well as any promotional material in which the commission was to be referenced.
It said "media will be barred from the 1st May event, with no exceptions", and that "Mongrel Mob members attending will be given guidance around their use of social media during and after the event".
Brown, a vocal critic of gangs who has clashed with Hutchinson on numerous occasions, has concerns about the HRC's involvement in the hui.
"Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt needs to answer questions about why he agreed to speak to the Mongrel Mob and why he agreed to keep this meeting quiet, even accepting the Mongrel Mob's 'guarantee' for his safety," he told Newshub.
"New Zealanders shouldn't be looking to gangs for their safety, but under this Government, gang membership has grown faster than Police recruitment."
A spokesperson for the HRC told Newshub that as the May 1 event was the first time the Commission had been invited by the chapter to attend a meeting, "due diligence questions were asked about the security of the event so we could be satisfied any health and safety risks had been mitigated".
"The HRC was also in contact with other attendees prior to the event, over the arrangements. No specific danger was anticipated, and the Chief Commissioner Paul Hunt had no fear for his safety."
Hutchinson told Newshub that "of course" the Mongrel Mob was going to guarantee Hunt's safety. She said there was some concern that earlier "race-baiting" with "an anti-Māori stance" could "attract an unruly crowd or worse". However, the event wasn't widely publicised.
"I think at any event that the Human Rights Commissioner is involved in, there is a health and safety protocol," Hutchinson says. "I don't think it would matter whether it was the Mongrel Mob or whoever, they have a protocol like any high official."
She says those who haven't been in a gang community will likely have "preconceived ideas" about the environment.
"Obviously, there is probably going to be an added interest because it is gangs and we know how gangs are labelled in New Zealand, and us, as an organisation, are working very hard at changing the narrative around what gangs are, because actually, they are whānau."
The HRC says it also had no intention of keeping the meeting "quiet", noting it published a press release about it the next day. That came as criticism of the visit mounted.
It told Newshub the purpose of Hunt's attendance was "to explain that human rights are not only about rights, they are also about building respectful relationships and taking seriously our responsibilities to each other".
"Our request that we be consulted in any pre-publicity material was to check adherence with this objective," the spokesperson says.
The commission says it gave "careful thought" about how to allow for open discussion and its observation of similar events in the past suggested media presence "could have the effect of changing the atmosphere and be less conducive to a free and frank exchange of views".
"Hence we requested that Mongrel Mob members did not live stream the event and media were not present. However, it should be noted that this was an open, public event, not exclusive to Mongrel Mob members, so anyone could attend in a private capacity."
No other social media restrictions were required, it says.
"The recent Royal Commission of Inquiry report into the March 15 attacks devoted an entire volume to the critical importance of social inclusion, and the Human Rights Commission takes seriously the inquiry's report and recommendations.
"This first public engagement with the Mongrel Mob was undertaken with this front of mind. The Commission will always assess whether or not it is appropriate for a Commissioner or staff will attend an event, and how it may be perceived by the public.
"The decision to attend is always with our human rights mandate front of mind, and on this basis the decision was taken to attend."
Following his visit, Hunt said he looked forward to the HRC engaging with the Mongrel Mob in the future.
The Mongrel Mob PR's rep said there was also a need to ensure the privacy of some attendees and for it not to become a "media circus".
"There are times where we just have to allow our members privacy and there are issues they want to talk about without it all being exposed to the media," Hutchinson told Newshub. "These are our people genuinely trying to move forward with their lives but they are ridiculed."
"We would have loved to have live-streamed this but mainstream New Zealand just seems to be offended even at the thought of embracing the name Aotearoa."
She said events since the hui, including threats to MPs, proves there needs to be caution.
Hutchinson commended Hunt for visiting.
"From him coming and being courageous and brave enough as a leader, he has been part of beginning to change the narrative around gang communities in our nation."
'Haven't been hiding this'
Hunt isn't the only one Brown is accusing of trying to keep their encounters with the chapter hush-hush, with Davidson this week updating an answer to a Parliamentary Written Question about her meetings.
Davidson previously said she attended an event as the Green Party co-leader, but didn't say she also met with the Waikato Mongrel Mob's Wāhine Toa group on April 22 in her role as the Minister for the Prevention of Family and Sexual Violence.
"Marama Davidson has failed to be open and transparent about her meetings with the Mongrel Mob, having had to correct an answer to one of my questions," Brown told Newshub.
"It appears that she has been trying to keep these visits to the Mongrel Mob quiet from New Zealanders.
"Gangs are becoming more emboldened under this Government having grown 50 percent over the past 3 years. We now have a Government which wants to coddle up to gangs and have cups of tea – rather than hold them to account for the violence they are causing on the street."
But Davidson denies trying to keep the meeting on the down-low, pointing to the fact she posted about the meeting with the Wāhine Toa group on her public Facebook page on the same day of her visit.
"Thank you to The People's Project, Te Rūnanga o Kirikiriroa, Mongrel Mob Wāhine Toa and Waikato Women's Refuge Te Whakaruruhau - for hosting my team today. For your insight and your manaaki of our people, and for your honesty. So much work to do, so much to fix, honoured to keep going with it," she wrote on April 22.
Davidson told Newshub: "I haven't been hiding this at all. It was just a clarification that there have been two engagements. One was as co-leader, one was as minister."
After it emerged she attended the Mongrel Mob event on May 1, Davidson said it was vital "we talk to a range of communities".
"It's really important that I engage with whānau-led solutions and that includes all whānau. For some years now I've been engaging with the women who are affiliated with gangs and their desires to see healthy, violence-free lives for them, their mokopuna and their whole whānau."
Davidson and Hunt are not the only public figures to recently meet with the gangs. This week, Newshub revealed Willie Jackson has had four meetings with gang members since the election, which he says was key to his role as Māori Development Minister.
In April, there were 8003 people on New Zealand's National Gang list, up more than 2400 since December 2017, following the election of the Labour Government. There are questions, however, about that list's credibility, with the Police Commissioner saying it's easy to get onto the list, but hard to get off.