Sonoran Policy Group founder Robert Stryk (far right) with NZ's Ambassador to the US Tim Groser (centre) and Hollywood actor Jon Voight (left) at an inauguration party for Donald Trump. Photo: NZ Embassy

A senior Kiwi diplomat criticised her Wellington bosses for their scrutiny of a deal with United States lobbyists, saying they were “driving me crazy” and telling the Americans to disregard a timeline inserted into the contract.

Caroline Beresford, the former deputy head of mission at New Zealand’s Washington embassy, also offered an internship to the daughter of the chief executive at US firm Sonoran Policy Group (SPG).

In May, Newsroom reported on SPG’s lobbying work for the Washington embassy, along with founder Robert Stryk’s connections to arm dealers and allegations of fraud.

MFAT provided Newsroom with emails, reports and other correspondence covering the embassy’s work with SPG since October 2016, following a chance encounter between Beresford and Stryk on election night.

After SPG helped the embassy to organise an inauguration party, it signed a three-month contract with the firm in January 2017 to help New Zealand secure access to E-1 and E-2 business visas.

As that contract drew to a close, SPG proposed a one-year extension beginning in April that year.

Too many risks – report

An April 5 report prepared by MFAT’s Americas policy team head Felicity Buchanan and sent to the Ministry’s senior leadership team recommended the extension be declined.

Buchanan said it was legitimate for the embassy to pursue visa access and identify “an unorthodox channel” in the form of SPG, given “the tumultuous environment immediately prior to inauguration”.

However, the initial contract was not backed by evidence of SPG’s ability to deliver or New Zealand’s experience dealing with the Trump administration, while MFAT should consider how it positioned itself “in terms of visible close links” to the White House, the report said.

“There are too many risks to manage and the prospects of success are limited.”

In response, MFAT’s deputy secretary for the Americas and Asia, Andrea Smith, said the risks needed to be weighed against the longstanding goal of improved visa access and “the singular contribution the Embassy assesses SPG can make to resolving it”.

“Given the significance of the visa goal and the advice from the Ambassador that progress has been made, with more foreseen in the period ahead, we do consider that on balance a one-off three month extension of the contract with SPG is appropriate.”

Smith said the embassy had to include key performance indicators and milestones in the new contract, while any further requests to use SPG would require “a full and rigorous examination of the need or otherwise for consultancy services in Washington on this or any other issue.”

“This level of micromanagement and bureaucracy drives me crazy”

On April 20, Beresford wrote to SPG chief executive Christian Bourge apologising for a request to see all the paperwork before signing the extension.

“This level of micromanagement and bureaucracy drives me crazy,” she said.

One of MFAT’s requirements was the addition of a project timeline, but Beresford told Bourge to regard them as “indicative rather than hard and fast deliverables”.

Bourge asked her whether her Wellington bosses would be “piss[ed] off” by the timeline, which showed SPG would not complete its visa work before the end of the contract.

“I could care less if we don’t meet the timeline anyway as its silly to have one in the first place,” Beresford responded.

MFAT staff standards ‘not met’

An MFAT spokeswoman said the Ministry still stood by its decision to use SPG, and was confident the company delivered on the work set out in the contract.

“Significant progress was made on the objective of securing improved US business visa access … and on developing links with the new US Administration.”

Regarding Beresford’s emails, the spokeswoman said MFAT expected the highest standards of conduct from its staff.

“It’s disappointing that those standards were not met in this instance and this has been addressed with the embassy.”

Beresford, who finished her term as deputy head of mission earlier this year, was also disciplined after telling the US Democratic Party to “get your shit together or we will all die” in a series of late-night tweets.

The documents also show Beresford offering an internship at the embassy to Bourge’s daughter.

In an April 18 email, she told Bourge: “Hey our Public Affairs guy, who is a doll, tells me [he] has a tonne of work for your daughter, so we are all go. Send me her dates.”

The MFAT spokeswoman said the internship was discussed but did not actually take place.

While the Ministry supported internships both within New Zealand and overseas, it expected to be informed when any were offered.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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