Review of Ministry of Primary Industries investigation into Kuriger family case finds matter dealt with adequately

An independent review of the Ministry of Primary Industries' (MPI) investigation into animal welfare allegations against family members of National MP Barbara Kuriger has found it was handled adequately and "not motivated by improper purpose".

It's also found complaints by the MP lacked evidence or legal basis and MPI's decision not to investigate her concerns was the appropriate one.

In a statement to Newshub, the MP said: "I only received the report yesterday and my lawyer and I are considering it". 

Barbara's son, Tony, pleaded guilty in 2020 to charges of ill-treatment of cows on an Eketāhuna farm between 2016 and 2017. The cows were owned by Oxbow Dairies Limited and the farm was managed by Tony. 

After the court case, Barbara told media she believed there to be a "political element" to the way the family's case was handled.

She also made a number of complaints to MPI about the conduct of the investigation and prosecution, and why others she alleged held some responsibility for issues that led to poor welfare weren't prosecuted. MPI considered these complaints but ultimately decided not to investigate. 

Both the Chief Ombudsman and the Kuriger family lawyer Chris Finlayson KC this year suggested an independent review of the case, leading MPI in August to appoint Michael Heron KC to review the investigation and matters raised by Barbara. 

In October, as that review was ongoing, Barbara resigned from her agriculture portfolios for failing to appropriately handle conflicts of interest arising from the personal dispute with MPI. A whistleblower alleged to Newshub that the MP was using an official letterhead to persistently request official information about her family's case.

The Heron review, released publicly on Thursday, looked into MPI's 2017 investigation of Oxbow and others in relation to alleged animal welfare offending, MPI's response to Barbara's subsequent allegations of offending by others, and the ministry's handling of correspondence with the Kuriger family.

It found: 

  • the MPI investigation was adequate, was conducted in accordance with the MPI Prosecution Policy and Solicitor-General's Prosecution Guidelines, and was not motivated by any improper purpose.
  • Mrs Kuriger's complaints about the investigation are not made out and, in any event, did not impact on the adequacy of the investigation. 
  • MPI's response to Mrs Kuriger's June 2020 complaint that no further investigation was required was appropriate. 
  • MPI's correspondence with the Kurigers following the June 2020 complaint was handled appropriately and respectfully. 

"Despite our findings above, we acknowledge the situation Tony faced was complex and seemingly intractable," the report said.

"We can understand the sentiment of unfairness, expressed to us in the course of this review, and the feeling that Tony was not getting support from those who could be expected to assist. 

"These matters are outside the Terms of Reference and do not affect our overall views about the adequacy of the MPI investigation but we acknowledge (as did the sentencing Judge) how difficult this period was for Tony and the apparent unfairness of broader farm problems being vested upon him as manager. 

"Ultimately, these matters were considered by MPI and the Crown Solicitor but prosecution was still determined to be in the public interest. We see no error in that approach."

MPI said it considers the report a "thorough and independent review of the matter", accepted its findings and considered the matter closed. 

The full report can be found here.

Barbara Kuriger.
Barbara Kuriger. Photo credit: Getty Images.

MPI's 2017 investigation led to charges against Oxbow and its three directors - Tony Kuriger, Louis Kuriger (Barbara's husband) and another individual. 

Charges against the third individual were dismissed prior to trial and charges against Louis were dropped as part of a guilty plea arrangement for Oxbow and Tony. The number of charges against Oxbow and Tony was also reduced. 

Tony was convicted of ill-treatment and ordered to pay veterinary costs, while Oxbow was fined $30,000.

Barbara later complained to media of a "political element" to the case and said her son tried to address issues early

"My greatest disappointment is that Tony asked for the problem to be solved," NZHerald reported her as saying in June 2020.

"He stood up and reported this problem and now he's the one who's been hitting the news when actually, the problem never got solved."

In October, after Barbara resigned as National's agriculture spokesperson for not registering her conflict of interest, the party's leader Christopher Luxon said it's "highly unlikely" Barbara would ever be Agriculture Minister

If National took power after next year's election and she still held the agriculture spokesperson role, it's likely she would have become the Agriculture Minister, which works with MPI.

In a statement in October, Barbara said her family had been in a dispute with MPI "over events that occurred in 2017". This "created a blurred line with my portfolio responsibilities", she said.

"Although the dispute is, for me, a personal matter which I have endeavoured at all times to keep separate from my professional role, I accept there has been a conflict of interest which I should have recognised sooner, and managed."

Luxon said his office first became aware of the issue when a third party got in touch. 

Newshub has seen the email from the third party. The sender claimed to be an MPI employee and alleged Barbara used her official letterhead to persistently request official information about her family’s case. They raised concerns about her using her influence.