Increase in contracts for Minister's partner's firm not conflict of interest: PM

Author
Jason Walls, NZ Herald,
Section
Politics,
Publish Date
Tuesday, 18 December 2018, 8:04p.m.
Peter Nunns, partner of Julie Anne Genter, works for a firm that has seen an increase in contracts. (Photo / Doug Sherring)
Peter Nunns, partner of Julie Anne Genter, works for a firm that has seen an increase in contracts. (Photo / Doug Sherring)

The transport consultancy firm of the partner of the Associate Transport Minister has seen a large increase in Government contracts in the last year.

But a spokesperson for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said as Julie Anne Genter had no responsibility for, or involvement in, any decisions to award contracts to the firm, no conflict of interest has arisen.

According to an Official Information Act (OIA) request by the Taxpayers' Union, the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) has spent $246,000 on contracting MR Cagney for consulting within the space of a year.

That number jumps to $356,000 when a November 20 contract, which is projected to cost $110,000, has been fully paid out to the firm.

Peter Nunns – a MR Cagney principal economist – is the partner of Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter.

A spokesman for MR Cagney said the potential conflict of interest was declared.

"We ensure that clients are aware of any conflicts of interest prior to commencing a project. Where indicated in project contracts we include a clause that identifies any actual, or perceived conflicts of interest and explains how we will manage them."

But Taxpayers' Union spokesman Louis Houlbrooke has an issue with the tender for the contracts.

None of the 18 paid MR Cagney contracts were open to tender.

"Even if the Minister has stepped aside from the decision-making, why aren't these contracts being tendered?

"How can we have confidence that taxpayers are getting value for money, and that the firm is the most qualified if no one is bothering with a competitive process?"

In a statement, NZTA said its procurement manual enables direct appointment for contracts up to $100,000.

None of the contracts awarded and paid out to MR Cagney were over $100,000.

The $110,000 November 2018 contract was open to "all of Government panel with secondary process used to determine preferred suppliers".

The spend on contracting MR Cagney was higher under this Government than it was the last.

Between November 2013 and May 2017, the National Government spent just over $200,000 – an average of $50,000 a year – on contracting the firm.

MR Cagney said NZTA's increased use of their services was a function of greater investment in public transport, walking and cycling being undertaken by the agency, rather than regional councils.

In a statement, Genter said she had nothing to do with who NZTA use as its consultants.

"The decisions about these contracts are not mine to make, and I had no involvement in them.

"I have discussed this potential (or perceived) conflict of interest with the Cabinet Office, and it is being managed appropriately."

She said she was fully complying with the Cabinet Manual.

A spokesman for Ardern said advice from the Cabinet Office was that when Genter was first appointed as Associate Transport Minister, she met with the Cabinet Office to discuss a broad range of interests and possible areas of conflict.

"This include[ed] her connections to MR Cagney. The personal interest that she has as a result of her partner's role has been recorded."

The spokesman noted that NZTA is a Crown Entity, with its own board which makes spending decisions completely at arm's length from the Government of the day.

"So there is no way the Minister could have influenced their operational decisions around using MR Cagney."

NZTA said it used a range of consultants and contractors.

"The agency's research programme is managed independently, with decisions on individual research projects made at arms' length from Government.

"The decision to use MR Cagney would have been based on a best for project case."

 

Overnight Talk

Overnight Talk

12a.m. - 5a.m.