Winston Peters’ lawyers signed papers seeking legal action against National leader Bill English and three of his ministers the day before the election was even held.

His action – which also seeks journalists’ phone and email records over the disclosure he was overpaid superannuation for seven years – was set before Peters received his seven percent of the vote and then entered supposedly good faith negotiations with both the National and Labour parties. He chose Labour, ousted National and now serves members of its negotiating team with legal action.

His papers even note that these National ministers were not acting in a ministerial capacity, in the matters that he is seeking documents over, and now have no access to state funds to defend themselves.

The case, if it becomes a case, appears to be over a breach of privacy.

His lawyer Brian Henry signed on September 22 the application to force English, Steven Joyce, Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley, plus English’s former chief of staff Wayne Eagleson to provide documents as did one of Peters’ solicitors Clifton Killip Lyon on a separate affidavit.

His lawyers told the High Court they could not formulate their legal action without access to whatever documents the nine listed defendants – including this writer – might possess. And they say some of the defendants might have no “tortious liability” in any case.

Today, news of the legal action was leaked via “senior, reputable journalist” Barry Soper on Newstalk ZB before document servers had achieved their goal. 

Peters wants to sue someone, for something, so poor old Mike the document server was sent out across Auckland today looking for a newsroom. This Newsroom.

After a false start he rocked up in a rental car to our offices and we greeted him at the gate to take delivery of the Peters Papers – a peculiar fishing expedition related to the stories disclosing the 72-year-old MP’s seven-year overpayment of superannuation.

Mike probably hates his job. But it was a pleasant enough exchange. He had a job to do and we had papers to read and publish.

The actual documents are an application “for discovery before proceeding commenced under High Court rule 8.20” and an affidavit from a Remuera lawyer Clifton Killip Lyon.

The application is in the hand of Peters’ longtime lawyer, Henry, fresh from representing the Whaleoil blogger, Cameron Slater in a defamation action. (Incidentally, Peters denied to Newsroom during the election campaign that he had any “arrangement” with Whaleoil over another matter.)

It lists me as first defendant and then, in order, Paula Bennett, Steven Joyce, Wayne Eagleson, Anne Tolley, Bill English, Brendan Boyle of the social development ministry, Newshub press gallery reporter Lloyd Burr and last, Clark Hennessy, the National Party’s campaign communication manger.

For each defendant there is an attached schedule listing what it is that Peters’ lawyers want under this fishing – sorry, discovery – expedition. It ranges from journalists’ notes, phone records, emails and other communications to ministers’ documents and phone and meeting records.

“To issue proceedings,” the application says, “he [Peters] requires access to the document trail developed by the conduct of the intended defendant’s aforesaid conduct”.

The action appears to be based on the law covering breach of privacy. “The grounds on which the orders are sought are as follows: the plaintiff has a cause of action under the Tort for breach of privacy.”

But it also notes that of the defendants, “some will have tortious liability some will not. None of the politicians were acting in a ministerial capacity and are accordingly personally liable as they are not entitled to state financial support in the defense (sic) of the cause of action.”

It says Peters became aware of a tweet by me supposedly boasting that Newsroom was about to publish a story. No such claim was made on Twitter or elsewhere. It claims ‘innuendo” that the “story would destroy Peters’ political career”. No such indication could possibly have been taken from the tweet. In any case, the tweet was deliberate parody of news media promotion of their upcoming stories.

The application then claims National’s campaign chief, Steven Joyce, said at a National Party event that a scandal he allegedly described as a “full load” was about to break.

In Peters’ timeline, Newshub‘s Lloyd Burr phoned Peters about the overpayment issue.

The application lists Peters’ publicly-discussed version of his dealings with the Ministry of Social Development and then claims his private information was “leaked to the news media”.

“It is impossible for the plaintiff to formulate the intended claim, as the plaintiff does not have the requisite documentation, therefore the plaintiff requires disclosure from the defendants as to the above-mentioned events.”

The affidavit from Clifton Killip Lyon sets out the timeline from when Peters’ partner Jan Trotman applied for national superannuation on June 13. Within six days the chief executive Boyle, had been briefed on an issue about the rate at which Peters was receiving his own super.

Lyon’s “enquiries” have revealed to him that “the first intended defendant Tim Murphy – a long time media detractor of my client* – was boasting he had the “mother of all scandals” he was about to break, my client was apparently the target.”

Lyons shouldn’t be paid for his “enquiries”. The tweet neither said nor implied any of those things, other than its parody of the words “mother of all scandals”.

He then fingers Joyce as having been “overheard” – yes, overheard – at a National Party conference claiming there was the “full load” story coming out about Peters. 

Lyon sermonises that Wayne Eagleson, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, had access to Peters’ private information and would have advised English “as a deliberate plot to damage my client’s reputation”. The lawyer then says: 

“I note the fourth defendant is still in his job,” he said on September 22, before Eagleson had announced that whatever way the Peters’ negotiations went, he was retiring.

“Normal practice,” the lawyer Lyon thunders “for a responsible Prime Minister is a staff member was involved [sic] in a plot such as this would be summarily dismissed.” Sound like anyone?

“My client has been fortunate that senior reputable journalists like Barry Soper on the breaking of the story, analysed what was happening and realised the leak for what is is, a deliberate political trick to damage my client’s reputation. The reports by experienced journalists have reduced the damage suffered.”

Lyon and Henry have been instructed by Peters “to identify and sue” those responsible, once they have any information that can help them finalise their “pleadings”.

Newsroom is unlikely to be able to assist them.

* Detractor? I would say I have seen through Peters and his bluster and his NO sign disgrace – on many occasions over the years. He’s not a bad bloke, deep down.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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