A Stuff Circuit Video Investigation
Maybe she’s talking about the tracking device put on her friend’s car. Maybe it’s how her boyfriend turned out to be a paid police informant. Maybe that time a private investigator turned up at the community board meeting she was attending.
Or maybe it’s any of the many other times Rochelle Rees has been followed, photographed or spied upon over the past 15 years.
Whatever it is, she’s very laid back when asked how much she ever thinks about the fact she might be under surveillance: “With everything that’s happened,” she says, nonchalantly, “it’s very difficult not to think about that. I try not to let it affect the way I behave or what I do but it’s always in the back of my mind.”
If you bumped into Rochelle Rees, you would never pick her as a target for the attention of police and private investigators. She works in IT, speaks calmly and quietly, and drinks soy lattes.
But it’s her role as a committed animal rights activist which has seen her watched. Often.
And lately there have been a couple of developments which have got this seasoned activist wondering where it ends, thinking that some of what has been going on is dangerous to democracy, fearing that the protections of the state towards its citizens are being undermined.
If there’s one private investigation firm which has come to gain notoriety for its tactics, it’s Thompson & Clark. Set up in April 2003 by Gavin Clark and Nick Thompson, the company was 50-50-owned by the pair and they were both directors.
In the past few months, there have been changes in the company structure - Clark is now the sole director, and the shares are now in the names of companies owned by them, rather than in their own names.
The changes have happened since an inquiry into the company’s dealings with Government agencies was announced.
Stuff Circuit approached Thompson & Clark to ask for an interview or comment for this story, but they declined.
“We don’t comment on operational matters other than to say that we operate within the law and comply with the industry standards and code of conduct,” says Clark.
On its website, the company touts itself as being expert in corporate intelligence and protection and offers threat analysis and risk assessments. The language sounds benign enough.
But it wasn’t long before some of its activities were gaining national prominence. Within a few years of its establishment, the company was at the centre of controversy for hiring paid informants to go undercover and gather information about protestors for a client, state-owned coal company Solid Energy - in other words to spy on a protest group.
Around the same time, the managing director of a security company hired by Thompson & Clark spoke out, saying he had cut ties with the controversial firm.
Andrew Gibson, of Gibson Security, had been employed by Thompson & Clark to provide security and protection for Solid Energy and other organisations which were attracting protest groups.
“We now realise they must have had people infiltrating those groups because [Thompson & Clark] were able to tell us where the protesters were going to be and what was going to happen,” Gibson told the Sunday Star-Times in 2007.
“Obviously they had someone giving them information from inside the groups.
“I'm not a fan of this, paying people to spy. It was a moral thing for us.”
Then-Prime Minister Helen Clark found it objectionable too and described Solid Energy’s role in the whole mess as “unacceptable behaviour from a state-owned enterprise”.
Mostly, things went quiet.
But that didn’t mean Government contracts dried up. If anything, Thompson & Clark’s connections to state agencies tightened, with links to the Ministry of Health, the Department of Conservation, the Ministry of Primary Industries, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and the Security Intelligence Service.
In one case, Greenpeace discovered Thompson & Clark was spying on the environmental group’s staff on behalf of oil companies.
“But in terms of who used the information it wasn’t only the oil companies, it was also the Government, in particular the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment,” says Russel Norman, Greenpeace NZ’s executive director.
“They were in bed with the oil industry and with Thompson & Clark and were exchanging information back and forth about Greenpeace.”
This year, the company’s Government contracts were again under scrutiny when it was revealed that the Southern Response Agency, set up to settle earthquake insurance claims, had been using Thompson & Clark to spy on claimants.
That revelation triggered a State Services Commission inquiry, initially focused on the Southern Response Agency. But in June, as details about other connections emerged, SSC boss Peter Hughes extended the inquiry, saying: “What I have seen raises serious questions about the nature of engagement between Thompson & Clark and State sector agencies. As a result I have decided to widen the terms of reference to cover all State services agencies.”
The widely-held assumption was that the inquiry would look at all arms of the Government. That assumption was wrong.
Not long after Rochelle Rees signed on as an animal rights activist, she realised she would come to police attention - even as a 13-year-old when she started attending fur protests, she noticed a frequent blue uniform presence.
She gets that the police have a role in maintaining the law.
Troubling, though, has been the interest of private investigation firms, one in particular.
“Thompson & Clark has been on our radar even longer than the police,” she says.
The reason it’s troubling, she says, is because whereas the police have responsibilities to the public, Thompson & Clark “can act solely in the interests of their clients”, under the law and code of conduct which governs them, of course.
In 2010, Rees and her friend, Jasmine Gray, came out of the district court in Levin when they noticed something odd underneath their car. It was a tracking device, linked to Thompson & Clark.
Rees and her partner were later issued with a trespass notice for pig farms, served on her when she was at a community board meeting (she was a member of the board), and her partner when he was at home.
“My partner pulled out his camera to take pictures of the guy (serving the notice) and he kind of panicked about his photo being taken and instead of just handing over the trespass notice he handed over everything in his hands which included emails from Gavin Clark giving him instructions,” says Rees.
Over the years, Rees says, she noticed that photographers hired by Thompson & Clark to observe their protests would be “chatting and very friendly” with police. But she never had anything conclusive to prove a link between the organisations.
So she asked, sending in Official Information Act requests asking about the company and connections with the police.
She did discover that firm founder and director Gavin Clark had been a police officer from 1985 until 1998 and that it was “possible he may have had involvement with investigations into political activists”.
She found that police had paid about $200,000 for a Thomson & Clark-related company for services such as security guards for the Pike River emergency.
But on the more critical question of whether police and Thompson & Clark shared information, police said her question was too broad and didn’t answer her.
It wouldn’t be the last time police would give that answer.
In 2008, Rochelle Rees worked with investigative journalist Nicky Hager to expose her then partner, Rob Gilchrist, as a police informant. For about a decade, Gilchrist was being paid by the police to give them information about the activities of animal activists.
Looking back, she says it had an impact on the activist groups at the time, and she can see that it changed the way she saw things.
“It was quite upsetting, more than anything because it makes you question whether you can trust the people you're working with and are friends with and very close to so it shatters your own sense of judgement in other people,” she says.
A few years later, she started thinking about one particular man who had drifted into the activist movement then disappeared. Who was he?
In 2003, not long before the Iraq invasion, Rees and some friends were at an anti-war march in Auckland’s Queen St when a man started talking to them.
“He said he was vegan, into animal rights and had been in Italy for eight years and had just come home and was keen to be involved,” says Rees.
Quickly, he became active in the animal activist group Rees and her friends were involved in. He said his name was Laurie Moore and that he was aged in his 30s.
“Most of us were young and female then,” says Rees, who was 16 at the time.
Jasmine Gray remembers that being a “bit unusual” at the time. “But I think we were all quite accepting of people who were a little bit different and stuff like that. So we were warm and welcoming, and he seemed quite enthusiastic.”
He certainly did. Pictures from the time show him heavily involved in activities, painting signs, banging a drum at protests, helping hand out brochures on the street.
Laurie Moore was a model activist. He said he was a landscaper so had flexible hours which meant that he always seemed available.
He travelled to Christchurch with the group in 2003. “Animals rights activists from around the country travelled down there for a week of protests and Laurie came along, stayed with us on the marae where we were staying, came to all of the events, and got to know animal rights people from around the country.”
Laurie Moore lived in an apartment in Dominion Road, Auckland, in the same block that Rees had been. Except his apartment was sparsely decorated, and he had no signs of family or other friends.
“We all definitely became friends with him,” Rees says. “We had lots of social events as well, I remember having drinks at the pub with him on Dominion Road near where I worked and he lived.”
He hosted meetings and pot luck dinners at his apartment and even had one of the group’s members stay with him for a couple of months.
In October that year, 2003, he was involved in a protest at Tegel, where members of the group went up to the company’s headquarters and scattered hay (as a nod to the fact that the company’s caged chickens did not have such luxury). One of them handed the company a letter explaining why they were there.
As far as subversive activities go, it was hardly the most disruptive, outrageous attack on a company, as upsetting as it must have been for the Tegel staff.
Nonetheless, one of the group was arrested the next day.
The next month, Laurie Moore told the group he was going to Australia to do fruit picking and suddenly left - something he hadn’t talked about doing.
“He sent us emails, sort of further and further apart...and a few years later I tried to contact him and my email bounced back,” says Rees.
Gray says, with hindsight, it was strange behaviour. “Given the closeness of our interactions...that was kind of weird to just sever those ties.”
But at the time, none of them thought anything of it. In activist circles, people come and go.
When the case of the arrested activist went to court, documents that were disclosed to the court revealed that Rees and her friends had been observed by a police group called the Threat Assessment Unit. Police say the unit is responsible for “collecting information to help make threat assessments regarding the current criminal environment, or to assist planners for major operations or VIP visits”.
The unit’s roots are in monitoring and investigating domestic threats. Apparently a group of mostly young women interested in animal welfare constituted such a threat.
Job sheets showed officers had been observing members of the group as they left Tegel, noting down things such as number plates. One person’s number plate wasn’t noted down despite, being observed by police - Laurie Moore’s red Toyota.
So how did the police know about the Tegel protest?
Rees says that, initially, the protestors assumed Tegel staff had dialled 111 and the police had responded.
In a search warrant application filed by the police, a member of the unit says he was in the area “on an unrelated matter” when he saw a group running away from the area, heard a call over the police radio about the protest, and then followed the group, observing their movements.
Just coincidence, then, according to that document and the job sheet of the officer from the unit who followed the group.But in an Official Information Act response to Stuff Circuit about whether police received information which led to officers from the unit being in the area at the time, Detective Inspector Paul Berry says this: “Police did receive information regarding the protest action.”
He refused to say where that information came from.
Given Thompson & Clark’s history of infiltrating protest groups, could they have had a mole?
A police source told Stuff Circuit that, at times, police collaborated with Thompson & Clark about animal activists, at one point sharing a paid informant. The source did not know about this particular protest, so we asked police.
Berry told Stuff Circuit: “It is not police practice to indicate either way whether they did or did not receive information from any person or group. However, in this case, and as an exception, it is important to state...police could find no evidence to indicate that, in respect of the ‘Tegel Foods’ incident, information was obtained from any private investigator or like company.”
He did not answer whether police had ever received or paid for information from Thompson & Clark about the animal activists in 2003.
There certainly seems to be a reluctance from the police to answer questions about their dealings with Thompson & Clark.
They didn’t answer our questions, inviting us to lodge a new Official Information Act request, warning us, though, about asking broad questions.
They told Rochelle Rees her questions were too broad.
And when Greenpeace asked about connections between the company and police in relation to Greenpeace, you guessed it - they wouldn’t answer the question because it was too broad.
“The police refused to release the information on the basis that there was too much of it and so they said just looking at a single email address showed many hundreds of emails,” says Russel Norman.
Surely the inquiry underway will get to the bottom of the links, right?
Here’s the kicker: the police are not included in the investigation.
The inquiry, headed by Deputy State Services Commissioner Doug Martin, is using the powers of the State Sector Act, looking at whether there have been breaches of the State Services Standards of Integrity and Conduct.
Police are not covered by the code of conduct because of police independence.
Norman says it’s a surprise to him that the police aren’t covered.
He thinks if the SSC inquiry can’t find the answers, someone should.
“I think if you are going to be engaged in genuine surveillance to protect people, obviously there's a role for the Government and for the police if they have genuine fears about what people might do,” says Norman. “You know you go to a judge and get a warrant. You go through a proper process. Thompson & Clark don't go through any of those processes.
“They pay people who then turn up at groups and pretend to care about whatever the issue is and then if they're passing that information on to the New Zealand police without ever getting any proper judicial oversight of what the police are up to, that is very problematic.”
Rees agrees, saying police should be open about their dealings with Thompson & Clark.
“They shouldn’t be having those dealings in the first place because Thompson & Clark are not impartial, they’re working solely in their clients’ interests.
“Usually protest activity is lawful and is something that needs to be protected and so having the police have an ongoing relationship with Thompson & Clark, particularly if they’re working together on surveillance and stifling protest, it’s really problematic.”
Given all she’s been through, it’s no wonder Rochelle Rees struggles to maintain trust in all the people she had dealings with. She thinks back to the Tegel protest. “We actually kept it quiet because it’s one of those things that you’re happy to open up and admit to afterwards, but we didn’t want to be stopped from doing it,” says Rees.
“So it was a bit secretive and there were only seven people and we trusted all of them.”
Seven people, including Laurie Moore.
Where is he now?