TKR National Trust & Credit Card Usage at Te Pataka Ohanga Ltd

Maori TV recently screened an Part 1 of an expose “Feathering the Nest” (and Part 2 here) on credit card usage at Te Pataka Ohanga Ltd, a company wholly owned by Te Kohanga Reo National Trust. They have specifically targeted the credit card spending of TPO Ltd manager Lynda Tawhiwhirangi and her mother-in-law Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi who is the former long serving CEO of the Trust, now a lifetime trustee, and also a director of TPO Ltd.

For seven weeks the Trust tried to prevent the story from being screened. It has received a lot of attention in the media and by bloggers, including Morgan Godfery and Graham Cameron. No Right Turn commented on John Key’s remarks and on the different standard John Key applied to his own MPs. Predictably the Pee Party’s Cameron Slater has written a piece Dodgy Maori Ratbags on the Take. TKR National Trust has belatedly mounted a media response here (and here) that has largely been drowned out by the adverse coverage. There has been a spirited defence by Johnny Nepe Apatu on Facebook. Professor Ranginui Walker says the Board needs new blood. David Cunliffe has commented that an independent inquiry is needed. Hekia Parata and Pita Sharples met with the trustees and they have between them agreed to an independent audit. It has also been announced by TPO Ltd that a “staff member” has been suspended and an internal investigation is underway.

E hika ma, now it’s my turn.

I know a bit about Te Kohanga Reo. My marae was an early participant in the movement, I am on the board of a trust that established a kohanga reo in Hastings and my daughter has run a kohanga reo in Hawke’s Bay for decades. Most of my mokopuna and great-moko are kohanga kids. Not that I’ve been intimately involved in running a kohanga reo myself. TKR National Trust was one of my clients in the 1990s when Dame Iritana was CEO and the late Sir John Bennett was Chairman. I got to know the larger movement at close quarters. For a short time I acted as manager of TPO Ltd until they appointed a permanent manager. At that time Lynda Tawhiwhirangi was my assistant. I know a bit about the internal workings.

Ironically, in view of this present standoff between Te Kohanga Reo National Trust and the Maori Television Service, I also represented TKR National Trust on the panel that negotiated the establishment of Maori Television with Cabinet (Tau Henare and Maurice Williamson). The Trust is part of the whakapapa of MTS. Just one of life’s ever present little ironies. Dame Iritana was a staunch supporter of that kaupapa too.

Dame Iritana is also a good friend of some 25 years standing. She can be infuriating at times but she is always a staunchly supportive friend. Before she became CEO of Te Kohanga Reo National Trust she was a senior officer in the Department of Maori Affairs. We were on opposite sides then but she impressed me with her ability to set aside what divided us and to focus on creating a good relationship based on mutual respect. She has been the most fierce advocate for the Kohanga Reo Movement since it started in 1982, a force to be reckoned with, respected as a successful lobbyist and negotiator for the Movement by successive governments. Whatever the outcome of this affair she will retain my  respect and friendship and her legacy will remain.

Would that the rest of us had made a comparable contribution to Maori advancement. We would be streets ahead of where we are today. The present generation of Maori leadership and her critics would do well to emulate her selfless dedication to the cause over more than five decades. And who among us is without fault.

Now, before any of you accuse me of bias let me state right at the beginning that I do not condone the free and easy use of corporate credit cards. In my company before I (semi)retired I did not issue credit cards to my staff, not because I didn’t trust them but because I knew that there was always the temptation to use the card, fully and honestly intending to pay back the expenditure. Politicians in New Zealand and Australia have been guilty of the same indiscretions time and time again. There is sometimes also a blurred line between what is or is not a legitimate business expense. And there is also the risk of illegal or irregular use of the cards. So I never issued credit cards, except to myself of course. Well I do own the company so I can make an exception. I have also never accepted any other corporate credit cards, although they have been offered, not because I don’t trust myself but because credit card spending is so often the target of muck rakers.

And I am not offering a defence of credit card spending at TPO Ltd. I’m going to wait and see the result of the audit. It does on the surface look bad for Lynda but I’ll reserve judgement until all the facts are known. The media case against Dame Iritana looks less certain but again I’ll reserve judgement.

Whilst the media has conflated an allegation against a director and the manager of TPO Ltd into an allegation against the shareholder as well (TKR National Trust) I will again reserve judgement until the facts are known. But they are two separate entities and there is a difference in law if not in public perception. The fact that the company and the shareholder are located in the same building and share facilities and services does not alter that legal separation. The fact that the three directors of TPO Ltd are also trustees of TKR National Trust does not alter the fact that the two are separate legal entities. The Trust is subject to trust law and the company to corporate law, two separate but similar legal regimes.

The media has also confused in the public mind the $80 million public funding that is granted to the Trust itself, and the Trust’s financial management, with the financial affairs of TPO Ltd. The two are separate accounting entities and any wrongful use of TPO Ltd funds (if proven) cannot be used to infer wrongful or negligent use of Trust funds, unless and until that is also proven. I don’t expect those who are baying for blood to acknowledge the difference.

So what is Te Pataka Ohanga Ltd.

Te Pataka Ohanga Ltd was established to transact business primarily aimed at gaining wholesale or discounted prices for purchases by individual kohanga reo. These purchases included motor vehicles, fuel, whiteware, technology, playground equipment, and insurance. In my time we also managed a scheme where we contracted specialist ear, nose and throat surgeons to perform grommet operations on thousands of mokopuna to deal with a widespread glue ear problem. We maintained a register of approved wholesale or discount suppliers of almost everything a kohanga reo needed. I made myself unpopular with Maori suppliers who thought they should have been on the register simply because they were Maori, instead of because of the quality of their product or service and the size of the discount. TPO Ltd has probably saved the TKR Movement several million dollars of that public funding over the nearly 30 years that it has operated.

These business activities do not sit well inside trust law and are best performed in a company structure. I can’t recall exactly how much commission or fee TPO Ltd charged for that service but the company does need to make some income to cover staff, office and operating expenses. In my time at least it was not a highly profitable enterprise but it focused on the service and savings it could deliver to kohanga reo. I would imagine that with the shrinking of the number of kohanga reo over the decades it too has reduced its activity.

As I wrote above I’m prepared to wait for the evidence before I pass judgement on the allegations. What does intrigue me however is the background story, or lack of it.

But first. On 13th September 2013 I commented on the mini furore around the non-appointment of a new CEO at Maori TV. That story had obviously been made public in the media by leaks from within Maori TV itself. This TKR story has also been kicked off by leaks from within TKR National Trust. So there’s another story in there somewhere – “MTV & TKR – Leaker & Leakee, Leakee & Leaker“. Sounds like a Chinese volleyball team. Maybe the Native Affairs team were also involved in the MTV leaks. Wouldn’t that make a good storyline for a Maori sitcom. A bunch of righteous Maori disguised as a Chinese volleyball team. I bet some of them are Mataatua Chinese. E Pio?

Sorry about the diversion. My wierd sense of humour often gets the better of me.

So what is the background story. I’m prepared to bet that Dame Iritana and the TKR National Trustees are the real targets of the leakers, and that TPO Ltd and Lynda Tawhiwhirangi are the means to that end. It would serve their purposes to paint any irregularities in TPO Ltd’s financial management as irregularities in the overall governance of the Trust. If that is the case they have achieved their aim through Maori TV and other media. Whether or not they are ultimately successful will depend on the independent audit and any other interventions that might or might not be triggered by that audit.

This all seems to be related to the dismissal of another friend Titoki Black as CEO of the Trust. That caused a great deal of protest from within the TKR movement especially in Mataatua and Tauranga Moana. But the Trust stood firm. The real story is that this leaking of information to Native Affairs is part of the campaign to restore Titoki as CEO, or at least to exact utu for her dismissal. The campaign is obviously supported by at least one staff member within TKR National Trust and according to trustee Tony Waho:

“Someone has gone into the trust records, we have this under investigation, and stolen credit card records. They were passed on to Maori Television who no doubt tonight [Monday 14th] are going to try to make links to dots that don’t exist”.

Folllow the whakapapa trail Tony, from TKR Trust to Native Affairs. Should be  a simple investigation.

It seems to be a fairly simple background story too and perhaps Maori TV might do a follow up to share the whole story with us. Perhaps not. But while the TPO Ltd story does involve some substantive issues as well as the obviously sensational benefits to would-be investigative journalists, the background story is by far the most intriguing. Misuse of credit cards is so commonplace it only has real news value when it involves politicians or Maori, or Maori politicians.

So. Now that the Native Affairs people have blooded themselves as investigative journalists in this small scale trial run on an easy target I’m looking forward to the full blossoming of their investigative talents as they take on the real villains, Pakeha and Maori – million dollar corporate fraudsters, crooked or hypocritical politicians, corrupt public servants, unlawful police activity against Maori, the serious erosion of democracy by governments, the blind refusal of governments to seriously tackle Maori poverty, the big stuff. Talk to Winston Peters. He knows where a lot of the skeletons are hidden.  Aim high e hoa ma, aim high.

I’m also prepared to bet that Lynda Tawhiwhirangi will be the only casualty of this trial run, if there are any casualties. But I could be wrong. Perhaps, like Winston, Native Affairs is holding back the rest of the story for a follow up revelation.

Postscript 23rd October 2013

Yesterday on Radio Waatea Tariana Turia expressed her concerns about Maori TV. Her comments were released by Waatea “Minister Turia loses heart in Maori Television“.

Following that Maori TV published an article by Maiki Sherman titled “Minister’s mis-step in Parliament“. The article is about Pita Sharples retracting and correcting a statement he made in Parliament. The attitude of the Maori Party, including Tariana Turia’s comments about Maori TV, is described. This paragraph says much about the real story:

“However the collective of Kōhanga Reo from Mataatua Tauranga-Moana stand by their decision to go public and say that if Māori protocol was followed in the case of dismissing its former CEO Titoki Black, the issues thereafter would never have been made public”.

Maori TV has now revealed that it was working with the Mataatua Tauranga-Moana group and that the dismissal of Titoki was the underlying reason for the publication of the credit card usage at TPO Ltd.

Today Julian Wilcox, head of News and Current Affairs at Maori TV spoke on Radio Waatea in defence of Native Affairs. He expresses his concern that Maori TV has become the story. He confirms that the Mataatua Tauranga whanau approached Maori TV in the first instance. It’s a small world. I knew Julian when he was head boy at Te Aute College and I was a member of the board of trustees. He was an outstanding pupil and incidentally one of the first generation of kohanga kids to graduate from Te Aute.

Postscript 20th June 2014

Maori TVs Native Affairs team has won two international awards from the World Indigenous Television Broadcasters Network for their investigative journalism, one of them for the programme “Feathering the Nest” about Te Kohanga Reo National Trust and Te Pataka Ohanga Ltd. See “Anatomy of a Scandal” below for the alternative story to “Feathering the Nest”.

See also

Anatomy of a Scandal – Te Kohanga Reo National Trust (12 June 2014)