It’s unclear if surveillance of Canterbury earthquake victims, using taxpayer money, is still happening. David Williams reports.

Beleaguered Crown-owned company Southern Response refuses to say if surveillance of earthquake insurance claimants is still happening. And the minister responsible says she’s not sure if it’s ongoing, either.

On Wednesday, State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes announced an inquiry into whether Southern Response, the company tasked with settling Canterbury earthquake claims from AMI policy-holders, had breached integrity and conduct standards. The investigation centres on the company’s use of a security contractor.

(Hughes’s statement says material he has seen “raises questions around compliance”, which suggests evidence of illegal or unethical activities hasn’t been uncovered and this is a genuine investigation.)

Asked by Newsroom if it is still using surveillance tactics, Southern Response declined to comment because of the upcoming investigation.

The Minister for Greater Christchurch Regeneration Megan Woods confirms she doesn’t know if the practice continues, saying she hasn’t been briefed by Southern Response on the scope of its activities and she’s unsure how many people might have been spied on. “The right process to get the answers to those questions is to ask the State Services Commissioner to undertake a process to do that.”

“I feel like I was targeted by Southern Response because I was a threat to their commercial operation.” – Cam Preston

On Wednesday, Newshub reported Southern Response spent $177,000 on private investigators to spy on earthquake claimants, including Christchurch accountant Cam Preston. Yesterday, lawyer Grant Shand told RNZ he was aware of other insurance claimants who had their affairs looked into by private investigators.

Preston, who played a prominent role in a protest outside Southern Response’s office in 2013, has lobbied vigorously to settle his own earthquake claims – now settled – and had also gone in to bat for others. He was deemed a threat by Southern Response, whose then-communications manager – who couldn’t be reached for comment yesterday – told police in 2015 she feared a repeat of the previous year’s shooting at an Ashburton Work and Income office, in which two people were killed. Within a week, police visited Preston at his home.

Preston tells Newsroom: “I feel like I was targeted by Southern Response because I was a threat to their commercial operation. But it’s utterly ridiculous that I was a threat to anybody at all.”

Preston says disgruntled claimants started working in groups after a public protest outside Southern Response’s offices in 2013. He thinks the company saw that as a threat. The company has an obligation to ensure its offices are secure and its staff are safe from genuine physical threats, he says. But he’s concerned about the monitoring side of the operation by that contractor, said to be Thompson and Clark Investigations.

If the goal was to intimidate Preston it worked. He admits being rattled by the police visit. “You have people who know you that start to then question, well maybe this guy is a complete loony. To be fair, my close friends and family know me well enough to know it’s not the case. But essentially it sets a tone that means it’s more difficult for you to want to put your head up above the parapet. I have been continuing to help people but a little bit less publicly.”

Preston says he never asked for a public inquiry. “Being an accountant, I just see money being wasted where it could be spent sorting out earthquake claims.” However, he hopes it’s “disinfecting sunlight” will protect others from such “nefarious activities”.

‘I reacted within an hour’

Woods’s referral to the State Services Commission, after advice from Treasury and Crown Law, was prompted by information contained in an Official Information Act response from Southern Response – which crosses her desk because of a Government “no surprises” policy. “I reacted within an hour of seeing the material. I knew it was something that as the responsible minister for the organisation, that I needed to take action on.”

Woods says she had a “small indication” of Southern Response’s surveillance activities two years ago.

After a tip-off from Preston, she asked a question of then-minister Gerry Brownlee. His written response was: “As of 15 September 2016, Southern Response has paid $177,349.56 for security services. I am not prepared to outline the full reasons for this expenditure beyond saying post the Ashburton MSD shooting incident, threats to staff were taken very seriously.”

Brownlee was overseas yesterday. But a National Party spokeswoman says: “People need to have confidence in the integrity of our public servants so it’s good to see the SSC investigating the issue. All decisions on how to deal with customer matters were up to Southern Response. There was no direction, nor opinion sought, from the then-minister for how Southern Response dealt with customers.”

In a statement issued on Wednesday, Southern Response board chair Ross Butler said the company engaged a contractor in early 2014 “in response to an escalating level of threatening and aggressive behaviour and communications from customers towards staff, the chief executive, directors and the chairman”.

“The health, safety and wellbeing of personnel, customers and workers involved on the Southern Response project are of prime importance at Southern Response. Our staff have a right to be able to interact in an environment safe from threats or harm, and the board has taken zero tolerance stance in respects of threats and hostile behaviour towards them.”

In a statement to Newshub, security company Thompson and Clark said it didn’t disclose information about clients or operations. “We can however advise that as licensed private investigators we operate within the law and in compliance with industry standards and guidelines.”

The State Services Commission is expected to announce, by the end of next week, who will lead the inquiry into Southern Response and the terms of reference.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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