Thursday, 29 Jul 2021

National MP who faced allegations of inappropriate spending revealed as Harete Hipango

National Party leader Judith Collins has confirmed MP Harete Hipango is the MP against whom allegations of inappropriate spending were leveled in the last term of Parliament.

The NZ Herald reported on Wednesday morning that a National Party MP was facing allegations of inappropriate spending of taxpayer money, which both the National Party, Parliamentary Service, and the MP themselves were refusing to comment on.

Sources inside the National Party have told the Chronicle that a staff member of the MP flagged a concern in the last term of Parliament, alleging items of furniture were bought out of the MP’s taxpayer funds but did not appear in the office.

The allegations surround a purchase of some furniture, including a new television, which allegedly were delivered and kept in Hipango’s own home.

It is also understood the cost of a sofa the MP bought for the office at Parliament was also questioned, and the MP was told to return it.

Hipango was approached on multiple occasions over previous days about the allegations but has gone to ground, not answering questions on the matter.

The MP did not answer multiple phone calls, and when the Chronicle visited her home, she refused to comment and demanded the reporter leave the property.

At Parliament on Tuesday, Hipango refused to stop and answer questions on the allegations or her reelection to Parliament, flanked by senior whip Matt Doocey and a party PR staffer.

National Party leader Judith Collins said she had spoken to Hipango, who has just returned to Parliament on the list, and been assured the issues were all sorted and Hipango had repaid Parliamentary Service for the items in question.

Collins said the items included a sofa for Parliament and some furniture in her electorate offices at the time.

“Some of it was something she could not actually claim for and therefore she had to repay it herself.”

Collins said Hipango was told the sofa could not be bought for her office at Parliament because Parliament provided the furniture for those offices.

Collins said Hipango had stored some in a shed at home, some went into one of her electorate office, and Hipango paid for some of it herself to keep.

Collins would not say what furniture was involved other than the sofa. “There’s a couple of items on there, but I had a look at the numbers, there’s very little in it and actually the information she has provided to me was that everything she purchased she purchased correctly or she paid for herself once she was alerted to the fact it had been wrongly coded.”

Collins said she had double checked with Parliamentary Service and was told there was nothing that merited concern.

Collins said Harete was not alone in such a matter. The example she used was MPs staying in hotels where the fee was above the maximum cap for spending, or for food which should have been paid for personally.

Earlier today Collins had said she did not know the details of the allegations.

Asked why it had taken five days to respond, Collins said she had wanted to check everything carefully.

“I’ve spoken to her about making sure she followed the rules and that she was careful.”

She said Hipango said she had also put some of her own furniture into an electorate office because it needed more furniture. “So I think this is a beat up.”

Collins’ office was approached by NZME last week with the allegations, including the name of the MP in question, and asked to explain or to clear up the allegations.

No explanation was forthcoming by Tuesday.

Collins’ chief of staff responded by sending the Chronicle a copy of a letter from Parliamentary Service chief Rafael Gonzalez-Montero confirming that no “formal complaints” have been laid against the MP.

But Parliamentary Service later confirmed to the Chronicle that a formal complaint isn’t a requirement for them to investigate or raise concerns about inappropriate spending.

The party didn’t respond to a list of questions put to them by the Chronicle asking about the allegations.

Parliamentary Service also refused to comment on the allegations, saying they do not discuss matters relating to individual MPs.

A spokesperson for Parliamentary Service said it was up to MPs to determine how to spend their budget, but spending by MPs had to be for Parliamentary purposes, and cost-effective.

If an MP spent an excessive amount on an item, or bought something for personal rather than Parliamentary use, the MP was asked to return the item or pay back Parliamentary Service. If the MP refused, the amount could be deducted from their salary.

The rules also note that any assets purchased remain the property of Parliament and not the MP.

Under the Official Information Act, Parliamentary Service is one of the only government bodies exempt from providing information upon request, meaning there is no official channel to determine what an MP had spent taxpayer’s funds on or whether they have been investigated for misusing funds.

And unlike Ministers, who fall under the Official Information Act, there is almost zero public transparency when it comes to MP’s expenses.

Ministerial credit card spending is released each quarter as well as travel and accommodation spending.

Parliamentary Services funding for MPs is not open to the same scrutiny, including the funding for ministers in their capacity as MPs.

However, only overall spending on travel and accommodation by MPs is publicly disclosed. Other expenses incurred by the MPs for their offices are overseen by the party’s whip and the Minister Responsible for Parliamentary Service – Speaker Trevor Mallard.

Hipango was previously the MP for Whanganui, first elected in 2017 after long-serving Whanganui MP Chester Borrows retired.

Hipango then went on to lose the seat at last years election by over 8000 votes, but returned to Parliament this week as a list MP replacing Nick Smith, who retired from politics after allegations of a verbal altercation with his staff.

Hipango previously hit the headlines last year after dishonestly attributing a quote to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern about farming – a quote Ardern did not make.

Hipango refused to remove the post, instead saying the quote wasn’t false, but rather a “construction of key words aligned with Jacinda Ardern.”

Prior to that, Hipango drew national attention after a strongly-worded Facebook post that criticised the PMs stance on abortion, and Hipango also hit the headlines after complaining about a a TVNZ comedy programme that compared her name to that of a yoghurt brand.

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