New allegations of wrongdoing by Transport Ministry fraudster Joanne Harrison have prompted calls for a fresh investigation into her activities, and into the treatment of whistleblowers.
The ministry said on Friday that Harrison, who is now in jail, lied to a senior staffer while she was still a manager there, when she recommended her husband Patrick Sharp for a job at the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC).
Harrison, also known as Joanne Sharp, was was jailed for three years and seven months in February after admitting charges of dishonestly using a document to steal more than $725,000 from the Transport Ministry.
The 50-year-old’s crimes came to light in July 2016, but Harrison was first questioned at the Transport Ministry about dubious contracts at least as far back as May 2014.
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TAIC said on Friday that it raised concerns about the hiring of Sharp a year before Harrison was outed as a fraud suspect.
Tim Burfoot, TAIC chief investigator, said Harrison approached the commission when it had a job vacancy.
“She said, ‘Oh, I’ve got this guy who might be able to do that’.”
TAIC staff soon grew suspicious about the relationship between Sharp and Harrison.
“It was just the behaviour that several staff observed between him and Harrison,” Burfoot said.
“We put that up to [TAIC] senior management, who put it to the ministry. They undertook their own enquiries and … that was pretty much the end of it.”
Sharp “just resigned” a while later, claiming he thought he had finished the project he was employed to do, even though he had not.
When asked if Harrison’s failure to disclose her relationship with Sharp was extraordinary, Burfoot replied: “It certainly doesn’t comply with Government protocols.”
A TAIC spokesman said the concerns were raised about a year before it became known Harrison was under investigation for fraud.
Transport Ministry spokesman Gavin Middleton said Harrison lied to a senior manager there when asked whether she was in a relationship with Sharp. Harrison said she was not, and had no conflict of interest.
Middleton said he was “not able” to name the manager.
A former ministry employee said this week: “There’s a pattern of concerns that have been raised and they haven’t been properly acted on.”
Labour’s transport spokeswoman Sue Moroney said ongoing revelations about the $726,000 fraudster warranted further investigation.
“I think it’s in the taxpayers’ interest that there is a full investigation. It’s been clear to me from the outset that the issues were not dealt with decisively.”
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said the Harrison saga showed whistleblowers were poorly treated in this country.
“The fate of whistleblowers in this country, upon which so much transparent government depends, is seriously a bad one.”
Documents released under the Official Information Act proved Harrison urged her former boss at the Transport Ministry, Martin Matthews, who is now the Auditor-General, to “close down” investigations when colleagues raised concerns.
Matthew said in November he took “decisive and thorough” steps once learning of Harrison’s discrepancies.
Police will not confirm or deny if they are investigating conflict of interest claims involving Harrison and Sharp.
A State Services Commission spokesman said the alleged conflict of interest over Harrison’s recommendation of Sharp was an employment issue that new Transport Ministry chief executive Peter Mersi had investigated.
“The Public Service Code of Conduct is clear on such matters. Where there are conflicts of interest they must be declared, and the persons concerned must remove themselves from any discussion or decisions related to that matter.”
Meanwhile, questions also remain about Harrison’s past in Australia.
She was named as a fraud suspect at rural water corporation Goulburn-Murray Water (GMW) in the state of Victoria in 2011.
The Weekly Times said Harrison allegedly received tens of thousands of dollars in unjustified pay claims.
GMW said her case was referred to the Victoria Police Fraud Squad.
A source said Victoria Police raised concerns with a New Zealand travel agent, which in turn contacted the transport ministry, after Harrison booked ministry travel in 2013.
The Transport Ministry did not immediately respond to that claim.
Interpol knew of Harrison’s links to the alleged GMW fraud. Another source claimed an arrest warrant for her was still active in Victoria.
Victoria Police have been approached for comment.