Right-wing group uses false IDs for info bid

David Fisher, NZ Herald ,
Publish Date
Wed, 3 Oct 2018, 10:17AM
Taxpayers' Union mascot Porky (left) with the lobby group's executive director Jordan Williams during a publicity stunt. Photo / Stephen Parker.
Taxpayers' Union mascot Porky (left) with the lobby group's executive director Jordan Williams during a publicity stunt. Photo / Stephen Parker.

Right-wing group uses false IDs for info bid

David Fisher, NZ Herald ,
Publish Date
Wed, 3 Oct 2018, 10:17AM

Additional reporting: Silkie Weil, Olivia Fairhurst and Grace Stanton.

False identities were used by a right-wing lobby group to make Official Information Act requests of a government agency.

The Herald uncovered evidence showing people seeking information for the NZ Taxpayers' Union did not actually exist - and that numerous email addresses from its purported members were actually directly linked to its head office.

One single Taxpayers' Union email address was linked to nine ghost people who filed OIAs seeking information, including details later used by the lobby group to seek publicity.

The Herald approached the Taxpayers' Union for comment. It refused to talk for two days then issued a statement admitting it used bogus identities to make OIA requests.

It has claimed it was forced to use deceptive techniques because it was being "stonewalled" when seeking information.

The revelation of an organised cluster of false identities is considered by Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier to be the first such occurrence in the Official Information Act's 26 year history.

Yet using a false name apparently breaches no law because the OIA doesn't require people seeking information to use their real identities.

The Taxpayers' Union is a lobby group prominent in its attacks over government spending.

Lawyer Jordan Williams and polling company maestro David Farrar - also Kiwiblog owner - set the lobby group up in 2013.

Taxpayers' Union founder and executive director Jordan Williams. Photo / Supplied
Taxpayers' Union founder and executive director Jordan Williams. Photo / Supplied

The use of false identities emerged after a Herald investigation into an unusual pattern of requests for information to Callaghan Innovation, the Government's science research agency.

The investigation found it impossible to attach real people to many of the 14 identities used in a number of OIA requests used in October 2017 to probe spending at the agency.

The OIA requests under question came from 14 named individuals during a sustained campaign by the Taxpayers' Union into entertainment and travel spending at the science research institute.

Callaghan Innovation told the Herald it received a total of 58 OIA requests last year, of which 35 were from the Taxpayers' Union or people associated with the lobby group.

Among the 35 requests associated with the lobby group were 19 directly made by the Taxpayers' Union and two by Williams.

The remaining 14 requests were made over five working days in October in a series of emails forecast by Matt Rhodes, a researcher at the Taxpayers' Union, who says he is unable to comment for this story.


Rhodes - now a lawyer at Christchurch firm Cavell Leitch - wrote to Callaghan Innovation on October 6 last year about a delayed OIA request. The Taxpayers' Union had sought spending information and been told the request was so large it needed to wait three months for data to be collected.

Emails show Rhodes told Callaghan Innovation he had sent initial information provided through the OIA to Taxpayers' Union members.

"We understand that a few of them are interested in making their own information requests. Please respond [to] them directly.

"Also, given the fact that our members are taking up the cause, we are happy for you to withdraw our previous refinement of request which was extended to December, if that would help relieve your burden."

Taxpayers' Union founder David Farrar, also polling company owner and operator of Kiwiblog. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Taxpayers' Union founder David Farrar, also polling company owner and operator of Kiwiblog. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Rhodes' email was sent at 1.45pm. The first related OIA request arrived 24 minutes later at 2.09pm from "Raquel Ray" and made reference to details contained in the information sent only to the Taxpayers' Union - the same data Rhodes said had been sent to members.

A second request - this from a Doreen Simpson - arrived at 2.48pm, again seeking a copy of a receipt relating to entertainment spending.

A request from "Lisa Keening" arrived at 3.13pm, again seeking specific details around $160.87 spent at a clothing shop in Auckland.

No "Raquel Ray" was found by the Herald - although the identity has previously emerged in another online mystery which drew in the Taxpayers' Union.

On that occasion, the name was used to register a website backing a bid by Papakura MP Judith Collins to lead the National Party. Williams told Stuff at the time there was no connection between "Raquel Ray" and those who worked at the Taxpayers' Union although he said someone of that name had previously supplied tips to the lobby group.

"It's definitely not come from within," he said at the time.

When he was told a Gmail account for "Raquel Ray" used his personal email account for password recovery purposes, Williams said he was concerned he was being set up by someone.

The OIA requests stopped for the weekend but others began arriving on Monday, October 9.

The first was a request from "Robert Preston" at 2.50pm, then "Mitchell Yee" at 3.21pm and "Randall Savage" at 4.07pm.

Taxpayers' Union mascot Porky (left) and the lobby group's executive director Jordan Williams during a publicity stunt. Photo / Stephen Parker
Taxpayers' Union mascot Porky (left) and the lobby group's executive director Jordan Williams during a publicity stunt. Photo / Stephen Parker

There is only one Mitchell Yee and one Randall Savage registered to vote in New Zealand. Checks of company, property and judicial records fail to reveal any others with that name.

Yee, a student and K-Pop dancer in Auckland, said he had not made any OIA requests. Savage, a motorcycle mechanic in Paraparaumu, also said he had not made any requests.

Neither was a member of the Taxpayers' Union or was aware of any others with his name in the country.

However, the Herald did find a "Robert Preston" who had previously emerged - in tandem with "Raquel Ray".

His name was used to sign a letter cancelling an online OIA request to Callaghan Innovation on an account held by "Raquel Ray" on the fyi.org.nz website.

The person who posted the letter to the account of "Raquel Ray" would have needed her username and password to access it before entering the name "Robert Preston".

The OIA requests to the Callaghan Institute in October 2017 continued on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of that week.

In that time, requests were made by Colin Milovic, Mike Decker, Andrew Hosking, Roxanne Bishop, Susan Abbey, Samuel Peters, Nikki Goldsmith and Moe Taylor.

Efforts by the Herald to find the people who made the requests were unsuccessful and included those registered to vote and those who were not.

There was no sign of anyone by the name of Colin Milovic anywhere in the world.

Inquiries by the Herald included checking the email addresses used to send the OIA requests to see if they had linked email accounts, such as occurred in the "Raquel Ray" case.

Eight Gmail and one Hotmail account used to make requests had identical email addresses to be used as a backup to access the account in case the email user forgot their password.

The identical email address appeared to be "@taxpayers.org.nz" and belonged to someone whose name began with "Fr".

The only person at the Taxpayers' Union whose name began with those letters at the time the emails were sent was Freya Watson, now working for a public relations firm in Auckland.

When contacted, she confirmed her email address was her first name then "taxpayers.org.nz" while working at the lobby group - a match for the recovery password.

She said she needed to speak to Williams before commenting. "I was just a communications assistant." She did not respond to further requests for comment.

Three Yahoo email accounts were used for requests - each of those appears to have an identical phone number for password recovery.

There is also evidence the OIA requests sent by the 14 apparently false identities were returned to and used by the Taxpayers' Union.

The OIA request sent by a "Robert Preston" on October 9, 2017, resulted in a response on November 21 showing $2400 spent on a team dinner by Callaghan Innovation.

The OIA response - with the "Robert Preston" identity deleted - was used by the Taxpayers' Union in January this year as part of a publicity release criticising Callaghan Innovation spending on entertainment.

The OIA requests by the Taxpayers' Union ranged across 2017 from questions about spending and financial processes through to one which asked Callaghan Innovation's chief financial officer Richard Perry how many times he clicked a mouse to access a spreadsheet.

Williams wrote complaining about the length of time it was taking to get responses to OIA requests.

He told Perry "we are greatly concerned" information was taking so long, especially given "what appears to be dishonesty on behalf of your organisation" over saying information was about to be publicly released when he believed that was not true.

Callaghan Institute chief executive Vic Crone. Photo / Michael Craig
Callaghan Institute chief executive Vic Crone. Photo / Michael Craig

"Having worked as an assistant accountant at a Crown entity, I know that pulling out a financial year's transactions … is a very simple request and should be straightforward - a few minutes perhaps."

Williams told Perry he wanted to know - through the OIA law - "precisely how many clicks and keyboard entries are required for your staff to access a transactions list … within your accounting system".

The request was refused with Callaghan Innovation saying the information did not exist.

Taxpayers' Union communications officer Louis Houlbrooke emailed a statement admitting the lobby group had invented identities to make OIA requests.

Houlbrooke - who was responding to emails sent to Farrar and Williams - claimed the Taxpayers' Union was "forced" to use deception when "government bodies stonewall us".

"Therefore, on rare occasions, our research staff have been forced to use personal email accounts, or have even encouraged our people to use pseudonyms, to ensure the public can have full and prompt access to information.

"This is one way to make it harder for officials and politicians to discriminate or play silly games with official information. The fact anyone would find it necessary to do this should disgrace these public entities."

Houlbrooke said the Taxpayers' Union would not rule out using false identities in future.

The statement did not address the possible discrepancy with Williams' comments to Stuff in February over Raquel Ray.

The Taxpayers' Union took umbrage over Callaghan Innovation's handling of its OIA requests public in February this year, with Williams accusing it of "manipulation of the Official Information Act at its worst".

Callaghan Innovation published its own press release about a week later in which it trumpeted its transparency.

Asked about the apparently false identities used for requests, a Callaghan Innovation spokeswoman said it had been dealing with a "large volume of requests for information" from the Taxpayers' Union and associated people at the time and "elected to respond to these in good faith, not seeking to verify identities of any requesters".

"We take transparency and our obligations under the Official Information Act seriously. This includes regularly seeking advice from the Office of the Ombudsman to ensure we are meeting our obligations correctly."

The OIA is overseen by the Office of the Ombudsman and those dissatisfied with how request have been handled can seek an investigation.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said those requesting information should be "upfront" about their identities unless they had good reason not to.

"To the best of my knowledge, this specific situation is not one we have encountered before," he said.

Boshier did not want to comment on the specific case but said government agencies were entitled to check if those requesting information were entitled in law to do so.

Those who were able to were citizens, residents, companies based in New Zealand or with a place of business here.

"If the requester does not meet these criteria, then the Official Information Act does not apply."

He also said: "If people are eligible to make requests, then they are not required to use their legal names."

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier. Photo / Paul Taylor
Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier. Photo / Paul Taylor

Boshier said those seeking information should be open about who they are "unless they have good reason to keep their identities secret".

Those receiving requests could consider a number of linked requests to be from a single requester and bundle those into a single request, which could be considered necessary if charging for excessive work or refusing to comply because of the work involved.

AUT journalism senior lecturer Greg Treadwell, whose doctoral research is on the OIA, said it was "not even in the realm of coincidence" the requests were from anyone other than the Taxpayers' Union.

"I just think it's a bit rich and politics at play and not freedom of information. The whole point of the OIA is we come to it in a neutral moment of transparency."

Steven Price, barrister and adjunct lecturer at Victoria University's Faculty of Law, said government agencies could insist on making sure people were entitled to make requests under law - but there was no requirement for a requester to use their own name.

"The whole thing is not a good look for the Taxpayers' Union."