The Ultimate Con - A Stuff Circuit Investigation

Words by Paula Penfold and Louisa Cleave. Visuals by Toby Longbottom and Phil Johnson.

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The woman whose name you may know as Joanne Harrison is smiling. 

She’s in her activewear, walking a small black dog down a pleasant lane in Nottinghamshire, England. 

Her hair is still blonde but cut shorter than it was when she stood in the dock in court in New Zealand. She’s looking fresher; life outside prison seems to be treating her well. 

It’s July 2020 and Stuff Circuit cameras are trailing her down that pleasant lane. She’s smiling even though she’s being bombarded with questions, her face fixed pleasantly. But she can’t mask how annoyed she is at being interrogated.

We’re asking questions for good reason though. 

In 2017, she was in the dock for stealing $726,000 from the Ministry of Transport. She was convicted and sentenced to three years, seven months in prison. 

But at that stage the public didn’t know she had a long history and a prior conviction for major fraud, a conviction which had not been properly reported because her name was suppressed by the judge, allowing her to move on and perpetrate the same crime at the Ministry of Transport. 

Stuff Circuit went to court to get that name suppression lifted, so we could expose that past for our 2019 investigation The Fraudster.

The questions being fired at Harrison in that Nottinghamshire lane are for our latest investigation, Alias, which picks up where The Fraudster left off, when Harrison was deported back to the UK.

We’re interested because we’ve discovered she is no longer Joanne Harrison. 

So who is she now? 

And who, apart from New Zealand taxpayers, is she conning this time?

Joanne Harrison’s dishonest past has left colleagues burned, love interests spurned, companies’ finances pillaged, friends betrayed, family shamed. 

Then there’s the matter of a country’s democratic process, and what looks like an abuse of political power. 

That’s why, half a world away, Joanne Harrison, conwoman, still matters: what happened to the Ministry of Transport and its former chief executive Martin Matthews is directly relevant to what’s happening with Harrison now.

Let’s refresh our memories.

By the time Harrison’s fraud hit the news in 2017, Matthews had become Controller and Auditor-General, one of the most important constitutional roles in our system of government; the financial watchdog on governmental and parliamentary spending. The Auditor-General’s independence is supposed to be guaranteed, to protect from political pressure - including from Parliament itself.

But the system failed in a spectacular way. 

To understand how, it helps to know a little of how the system is supposed to work. 

Appointments of statutory officers such as the Auditor-General, the Ombudsman, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment are made by the Officers of Parliament Committee (OPC), a select committee of senior MPs, chaired by the Speaker.

Because of their role as watchdogs who may well be critical of politicians, it should be difficult to remove any of those officers. The way it’s supposed to happen is through an address from the House, followed by removal or suspension by the Governor-General. There are four grounds: disability affecting the performance of duty, bankruptcy, neglect of duty or misconduct. 

That’s not what happened with Matthews. Instead, he was removed through an unconstitutional process which the OPC has now had the chance to correct, but chose not to.

City skyline with birds flying in front

When Matthews was interviewed for the role of Auditor-General, the OPC discussed Harrison’s fraud with him, and even heard from the director of the Serious Fraud Office, who said his handling of the case was ‘exemplary’. 

In December 2016 he got the job as Auditor-General, a job he should have stayed in for seven years. Instead, six months later he was gone. 

Here’s how. 

Allegations emerged that whistleblowers had warned Matthews about Harrison’s fraud, but that he ignored those whistleblowers, and then made them redundant. 

The story took hold because, well, it’s a good story. But it wasn’t quite true.

The State Services Commission investigation found the whistleblowers' concerns were not about ‘wrongdoing’ or fraud, but about compliance and procurement matters, and that the redundancies were part of a legitimate restructure. It said they should receive an apology for hurt and humiliation, but made no findings against Matthews. 

But none of that mattered, because now that everybody knew Harrison was a fraudster, it seemed a blindingly obvious failure that her fraud hadn’t been detected when the compliance issues were raised: Matthews should have smelled a rat. 

By two weeks out from when the House would rise for the 2017 election campaign, the continued noise around the story had become an irritating distraction. 

So Matthews was brought before the very committee that had appointed him, to be told there was a consensus among political parties that they had “lost confidence” in him.

2017 Officers of Parliament Committee (OPC): David Carter (chair, National), David Clendon (Green), Te Ururoa Flavell (Māori Party), Trevor Mallard (Labour), Ron Mark (NZ First), Jami-Lee Ross (National), Carmel Sepuloni (Labour)

But so what? For one thing, their loss of confidence was based on a political and media narrative. More importantly, loss of confidence is not legally a reason to remove an Auditor General. 

The only one of the four grounds which might be shoehorned to fit was “disability affecting performance”. 

Matthews has since told Stuff, “There was no basis for the claim. I was not disabled. I did not have either a physical or mental incapacity that rendered me incapable of performing the Auditor-General’s role”. 

Then came the ultimatum. 

“They in effect held a gun to my head”: resign by 5pm that day, Matthews was told, or a report damning of his role as CEO of the Ministry would be made public - a report to which he wasn’t given an opportunity to respond, and which his lawyer describes as “a faulty review”.

But actually, whether the report was sound or not doesn’t even matter: it wasn’t legally a basis for the OPC to get rid of an Auditor General. 

Yet that’s exactly what they did. 

Matthews had no legal recourse. His only option was to petition Parliament seeking relief for the way he was treated. 

So in December 2019, he asked the House to recognise that the process was inappropriate, to compensate him, (he says the whole saga cost him not only his reputation and livelihood, but his family home), and to make changes to prevent the same thing happening to Auditors-General and similar officers in future.

A body of distinguished legal and constitutional minds weighed in behind him. 

Former Prime Minister and Attorney-General Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC said: “It was a constitutional disgrace and Parliament should rectify the wrong that has been done”. 

“The treatment … was the worst I can recall being inflicted upon a high officer of state in New Zealand.” 

Long-time Clerk of the House David McGee QC said it was “unarguable that Matthews was forced from office”, and it was “illegitimate for the committee to have made the threat that it did”.

Former Supreme Court and International Court of Justice judge Sir Kenneth Keith wrote that if the decision stood, it would be “an affront to New Zealand’s proud tradition of constitutional government”. 

And from Philip Joseph, law professor at the University of Canterbury: “Something went horribly awry in August 2017. This episode has exposed a serious lacuna in our constitutional process”. 

But it was all a waste of time and ink.

The OPC (which was in effect investigating its own actions, albeit that the majority of members had changed) said no. 

2020 Officers of Parliament Committee (OPC): Trevor Mallard (chair, Labour), Barbara Kuriger (National), Clayton Mitchell (NZ First), Chlöe Swarbrick (Green), Anne Tolley (National), Michael Wood (Labour)

* Only Mallard, Kuriger, and Tolley participated in all three hearings. Other committee members rotated stand-in MPs from their respective parties.

* Only Mallard, Kuriger, and Tolley participated in all three hearings. Other committee members rotated stand-in MPs from their respective parties.

“We do not think that the evidence supports a relitigation of the decisions of the previous committee, and as such are unable to support Mr Matthews’ request for an apology, reimbursement, compensation or damages.” 

That no was despite an extraordinary admission from David Carter (the committee chair at the time Matthews’ resignation was forced) that confidence in Matthews was waning “following frequent media coverage”, and that there was pressure because of the impending election - “the matter had to be tidied up before Parliament dissolved”.  

The admissions are extraordinary because it’s hard to imagine any ordinary employer could lawfully sack an employee in this way: it would be constructive dismissal.

The OPC’s report went on to say, “However, we do recommend changes … be considered for the future”, acknowledging that the “processes undertaken … are unusual”.

It seems a contradiction. Is the committee saying it didn’t get it wrong, but that in the future things should be done differently? 

Intriguingly, NZ First wanted its minority view recorded: that the process was flawed, and that questions remained about whether Matthews suffered a miscarriage of justice.

“In the interest of natural justice we strongly state our sense of grave disquiet.” 

Nobody ever likes admitting they’re wrong, and the OPC would have had to swallow a rat to do so. 

But there’s much more at stake here than politicians’ egos.

Martin Matthews

So what does this all have to do with Harrison and why Stuff Circuit is investigating her again? 

Because what she’s up to now is directly relevant to the treatment meted out to Matthews. 

If you’ve already watched The Fraudster, you’ll have seen that the Ministry of Transport was far from the first workplace Joanne Harrison conned her way into and then systematically stole from.

And when you watch Alias, you’ll see it wasn’t the last to be conned, either. 

Importantly, the companies she has continued to con didn’t catch her through any sophisticated process of fraud detection. They found out because Stuff Circuit told them.  

These are not two-bit small businesses either; they are major multinational corporations, conned by Harrison. Just as the Ministry of Transport was. Just like Tower Insurance before that. And Immigration New Zealand, Goulburn Murray Water in Victoria, the Far North District Council before that.

Yet none of these other employers lost their jobs or suffered any ill effect at all, the fraud itself aside. 

And many of them just quietly moved Harrison along so she could do the same thing to someone else. 

Everyone deserves a second chance, of course.

Harrison did her time, served a chunk of her sentence, and was kicked out of her adopted country. She paid a price, as she should. 

But the thing about second chances is you should only get them if you tell the truth.

As Alias shows, Harrison took her toolkit of lies back to the UK, and made a mockery of what she’d told the Parole Board about going straight. 

And that’s the irony that reflects appallingly on New Zealand’s parliamentary decision makers. 

Harrison has had second, third, fourth, fifth chances. 

Matthews never got one at all. 

Airplane

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