The Government is battening down the hatches tonight as another senior cabinet minister finds himself embroiled in an immigration scandal.
David Cunliffe, who held the Immigration portfolio up until last week’s cabinet reshuffle, is alleged to have contracted a cleaning company that used illegal immigrants to clean both his own house and his sister’s house in Auckland.
Investigate magazine has been given an affidavit by an Auckland man whose girlfriend, a 28 year old Mongolian woman, was one of the illegal workers employed by the VIP Home Services franchisor and who cleaned the Cunliffe family houses.
In the affidavit, Chris Flavell alleges his girlfriend Uulna was paid cash, with no tax deductions, but that her applications for a work permit kept getting knocked back by NZ Immigration Service.
Flavell has told Investigate that there is no suggestion the Minister realized his cheap house cleaning was being provided by illegal immigrants, but he nonetheless decided to approach the Minister on Friday to see if he could help find out why Immigration kept rejecting work permit applications.
“My girlfriend is a hard worker,” he told Investigate. “She doesn’t like working under the table and wants to make a positive contribution.
Flavell’s affidavit alleges that he left a message for the Minister on Friday, and that the Minister immediately rang back.
During the discussion Flavell explained that he had already contacted Investigate magazine and TV3’s Campbell Live, to which the Minister allegedly replied, “Whatever your problems are, I can’t help you under threat.”
“I’m not threatening you sir, I am just desperate for help,” replied Flavell.
According to Flavell’s affidavit, Cunliffe then said, “Go to my electorate office right now and speak to my secretary. They will take all the information from you and if something can be done, if we can help you, then we will. But I cannot act under duress. Go straight to the office right now, take all your information down there, give it to the secretary, she’ll be waiting for you, and we’ll take matters from there.”
Flavell alleges that when he got there, he was asked to provide as much information as possible, copying off documents from his laptop onto a CD for the Minister.
When Flavell told the office about his earlier contact with Investigate magazine and TV3, he quotes Cunliffe’s electorate secretary Lusi Schwenke as saying:
“Chris, if you go down that road and follow that path the media will destroy you, they will destroy the girl you love and the people who work in that VIP company. David cannot be harmed, he has a wall of protection around him.
“We will make a very serious investigation into these matters…we will contact Immigration immediately and intercept Uulna’s 35A application and check that it has been processed correctly…You don’t need to harm David, because that will only hurt Uulna and the people that she works with, and ultimately it will hurt you. You know what the media are like, they will make this into a monster. In Samoa we have a saying, ‘if you sharpen a spear to point at someone, the spear will harm you first. Don’t speak to Ian Wishart. Go home and calm down, and I promise you we will seriously investigate everything and nothing bad will happen to Uulna. Immigration is not going to come and pick her up, no one is going to come and harm you. Be calm, and let us do the job of investigating this.”
Confident that the Minister would indeed hand the case over to Immigration for review “immediately”, Flavell says he left the office in better spirits, but was stunned to find out that within 10 minutes the Minister had phoned the cleaning company and cancelled his contracts with them, on the basis of what Flavell had handed over for official review. According to the affidavit, Uulna was in the car with her boss when the Minister phoned, and she was fired on the spot.
Flavell is incensed that information he provided to the Minister for a proper review was allegedly misused by the Minister to “protect his own position” personally.
“I believe the actions of the Minister’s office, after telling me they would carefully investigate and that no harm would come to Uulna in the interim, were deceptive, , and that the Minister took immediate action to protect his own position without first attempting to make any proper investigation at all,” Flavell alleges in his affidavit.
“It was my belief that the proper course of action for the Minister would have been to immediately contact his officials and declare his interest in the case, so that the Service could commence a proper inquiry and Uulna’s circumstances could be reviewed as promised. Instead, the Minister’s precipitate actions have deprived Uulna of any natural justice at all.”
When Investigate contacted a spokesman for the Minister, he initially claimed that Uulna had never worked on Cunliffe’s house. When we challenged this claim, the spokesman said the Minister had been assured by the cleaning company owner, who had records that could prove Uulna was not on the roster.
When we pointed out that Investigate had a sworn affidavit to the contrary, the Minister changed his position to say that he would not comment on Immigration matters or become involved in them.
We asked his spokesman why, then, the Minister had acted on information provided in order to secure his personal position on this particular immigration matter.
“All I can say is that the Minister has no further comment,” said the spokesman.
Investigate rang Josip Trogrlic, the cleaning franchisor, who denied that Uulna had ever been an employee of his company or that she had ever set foot in the Immigration Minister’s house – a statement that matched David Cunliffe’s initial response.
Just a couple of minutes after our conversation with Trogrlic, however, Investigate was rung by Flavell with Uulna beside him in tears, she told Investigate that Trogrlic had just rung asking her to swear a false affidavit, testifying that she had never worked for VIP and never been in the Immigration Minister’s house.
Such an affidavit could have been used against Investigate magazine by either the company or the Minister.
Investigate phoned back Trogrlic to remind the cleaning franchisor that any attempt to procure a false affidavit could be deemed a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, a crime punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment.
“I have nothing more to say,” Trogrlic told the magazine tonight.
The Minister’s position appears to be precarious. While no one could fault the Minister for the fact that his cleaning contractor was using illegal workers apparently without his knowledge, the way that the Minister handled the matter when it came to his attention on Friday is questionable in Investigate’s view.
He used information provided to his electorate office to immediately secure his personal and business position, in such a way that it immediately impacted negatively on the constituent at the centre of it. This was despite a promise from his staff that the first step would be to “contact Immigration immediately”.
Additionally, the Minister acted unilaterally to cancel cleaning contracts with VIP Home Services, without any independent investigation or verification of Flavell’s claims by the Immigration Service – which again contradicts his statement that he does not comment or get involved in immigration matters.