DEAD MAYOR WALKING
AUCKLAND’S LEN BROWN AND THE WOMAN WHO’S BRINGING HIM DOWN
(It’s not who you think)
Auckland mayor Len Brown is the man many dignitaries are probably wondering whether they should shake hands with, given the lurid accounts of extra-marital trysts at the mayoral desk and personal pleasure sessions over the phone. But while the Bevan Chuang scandal may have defined Len Brown as an immoral lame duck mayor, it’s the work of veteran public watchdog and anti-corruption campaigner Penny Bright that may yet bring the old dog to heel. IAN WISHART analyses the fallout
It was former Waitakere-turned-Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt who very famously said, “I don’t care where, as long as I’m mayor!”. Little could he know how much that darling of the Labour left, Len Brown, would take up that particular clarion call.
There was the mayoral desk, the mayoral chair, the mayoral bathroom (for the fulfilment of some rapid phone sex in between meeting VIPs). All of that might have been forgiven by the Left, whose commentators worked themselves into fits of contortions trying to justify the mayoral monkey-spanking as “nothing to see, move on”. They might have succeeded, but for the fact that Len ‘I don’t care where’ Brown had chosen the Sky City Hotel as one of the “where” locations.
The kerfuffle over whether Brown had paid for the hotel rooms personally or using council funds was one factor that led to further investigation of what is now known as “the Bevan Chuang affair”, in honour of the Asian maiden whose hell-hath-no-fury affidavit torpedoed Brown’s reputation within minutes of its release on Cameron Slater’s Whaleoil blog last year.
What the official inquiry found is that Auckland’s super-mayor had “forgotten” to declare tens of thousands of dollars worth of free hotel rooms and upgrades, and not only had he forgotten to declare them as donations but he also had an undeclared conflict of interest when it came to the Sky City Hotel and Casino business.
Enter Auckland mayoral candidate and public purse watchdog Penny Bright. A decade ago, Investigate profiled Bright as leader of the Water Pressure Group – an activist group geared to fighting the privatisation of drinking water.
What quickly distinguished Bright from many other ‘activists’ was a deep adherence to the principle of integrity. She was just as willing to point the finger at the Left as the Right, when she felt integrity was lacking. Perhaps the best example was the unlikely sight in 2003 of the Green Party offices in Auckland being picketed by Bright and Jon Eisen, now the editor of Uncensored magazine, over the Greens’ decision to support constitutional change without consulting the public.
With an engineering background, Bright is no stranger to hard work, and perhaps that’s what’s taken her from a relative unknown thirteen years ago to the fourth highest-polling candidate for the super city mayoralty last year.
Bright’s platform is simple: transparency in business and political dealings. International experience has shown that the most corruption – and therefore most wastage of public monies – usually takes place in contractual deals between local authorities and big business. If you minimise the opportunity for corruption in council and government dealings, the costs to taxpayers and ratepayers are reduced.
It wasn’t Len Brown’s sexual encounters that rattled Penny Bright’s cage – although she did see it as a moral failure from a man who’d only days earlier convinced voters to “trust me”. Instead, it was Len Brown’s voting record on the Sky City Casino deal that tweaked Bright’s antennae.
A politician of the Right, Act leader John Banks, had recently been accused of making a false electoral return around the Sky City and Kim Dotcom donations. It would be wrong, felt Bright and others, not to hold politicians of the left equally accountable under the strict letter of electoral law.
In a country where Labour MP Taito Philip Field recently served clanger-time for allegedly procuring ‘bribes’ over immigration – a charge he vehemently denied – Bright teamed up with retired Wellington accountant Graeme McCready to launch a private prosecution of Len Brown when authorities – including the Serious Fraud Office – steadfastly refused to act.
“As a public official in his capacity of Mayor of Auckland, [Len Brown] accepted a bribe for himself and his wife in the form of five complimentary room upgrades at Sky City and Sky City Grand Hotels,” reads one charge sheet filed with the Court, “in the amount of $2569.41 in return for favourable consideration to be given by the named defendant in his official capacity for future dealings by the Auckland City Council for those two entities or the parent company Sky City Casinos Limited or associated entities.
“He subsequently voted on matters relating to those entities without disclosing the fact of the ‘gifts’ in his register of interests or disqualifying himself.”
A further charge relating to another $2,000 worth of complimentary hotel rooms at Sky was also filed – both charges carrying a maximum seven year jail term if Brown is convicted under s105(1) of the Crimes Act – a section relating to bribery and corruption of a public official.
Brown had been opposed to the increase of gaming machines at Sky City, but at some point during the relevant period he was receiving free hotel rooms and upgrades, and during the time he was entertaining his mistress there, he changed his tune, voting in support of the government’s Sky City Convention Centre deal at council meetings.
Even if Brown is eventually found not guilty, there is the vexing question of whether he can be trusted in public office. Leave aside the issue of the mayor currently being a laughing stock, and concentrate only on the trust issue.
In his searing essay “Can Public Figures Have Private Lives?”, Harvard University professor Frederick Schauer argues that a propensity to cheat behind closed doors might reveal a propensity for dishonesty generally:
“The claim that marital infidelity is irrelevant to the office of President of the United States presupposes that the role of President should not include the role of being an exemplar of marital fidelity,” remarks Schauer.
“For many people it should not, but for many others it should…
“It is widely known that President Clinton cheats at golf. Although it is clear that playing golf is not part of the job description of President…many people believe that maintaining certain high standards of veracity are indeed part of that job description. And if that is the case, then the empirical question is presented whether evidence of cheating at golf is some evidence of (or relevant to) a likely failure to maintain high standards of veracity in public pronouncements.”
In Clinton’s case, the world knew he was a golf cheat before they knew he was a marital cheat. In Len Brown’s case, the world knew he was a marital cheat then discovered he’d “forgotten” to declare $39,000 in “gifts” and “forgotten” to declare a conflict of interest in a major vote concerning one of his secret sponsors. One could be forgiven for wondering whether Len Brown is fundamentally honest, or dishonest, and therefore whether he can be trusted at the helm of the supercity and ratepayer funds.
For Penny Bright, the controversy surrounding Mayor Brown’s alleged bribes is the tip of a bigger iceberg. With almost no support from the daily news media, Penny Bright discovered and published herself official documents that revealed the Police organised crime agency OFCANZ had failed to do its statutory duty and investigate the Sky City Casino deal for its potential impact on money laundering.
At issue was the use of a system known as Tickets In/Tickets Out, or TITO, which speeds up casino transactions and is in widespread use at Sky City. Regulators in Canada and elsewhere have found TITO systems are especially prone to being used by organised crime syndicates to launder drug and terrorism funds. So Bright asked the obvious question, what reports does OFCANZ hold on the organised crime implications of TITO in New Zealand casinos? The answer came back: none.
“OFCANZ holds no information on this matter”.
Under the law, OIA answers are required to be accurate and truthful, meaning New Zealand’s premier police agency has absolutely no information on the use of TITO for money laundering.
In its OIA answer, OFCANZ also reveals it was never asked to report on the possibility of increased money-laundering at Sky City as a result of the extra machines.
You might be scratching your head right now, wondering how the Sky City Casino deal has come so far without ever being investigated for its organised crime implications, but the National Government, the Police, OFCANZ, the Serious Fraud Office and other public agencies have so far refused to do any checks.
Perhaps that’s why people like Penny Bright feel the need to make politicians publicly accountable for any alleged transgression of corruption laws.