The Department of Conservation has spent more than $20,000 on external consultants in the case of a scientist who was suspended after photos he sent to conservation groups were passed to the media. David Williams reports.

A top Wellington employment lawyer and an independent human resources consultant were engaged by the Department of Conservation over the suspension of a top scientist.

As revealed by Newsroom in July, Christchurch-based ecologist Nick Head was suspended after photos of work on an irrigation pipeline he sent to conservation groups Environmental Defence Society and Forest & Bird were then sent to the media.

Two-and-a-half months into the suspension, and with DOC’s investigation far from finished, Head quit and started pursuing a personal grievance claim. His departure sent shockwaves through DOC’s Christchurch office, in particular, but also through the scientific community, worried about ecological work to be done in the Mackenzie Basin. (Last month, Newsroom reported that a Mackenzie briefing, penned by Head for Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage, was doctored by a DOC manager.)

DOC confirms it spent more than $22,000 (including GST) on specialist employment lawyer Karen Radich and HR consultant Cliff Daly, of Waikanae, in relation to Head’s suspension, up to July 26.

GST-excluded figures, released under the Official Information Act, show Radich’s 23.25 hours’ work cost $9900 – or more than $400 an hour – plus a junior barrister’s 6.15 hours’ work totalling $1107. Daly, meanwhile, spent 48 hours on the case, costing $7790, plus $394.75 in expenses.

‘Spending conservation money to punish staff’

Why were the services of Radich and Daly necessary?

DOC’s director of human resources Suzanne Edwards says: “Given the nature of this employment issue and the questions being asked by Mr Head, the department engaged an external investigator to undertake an independent investigation. During the course of the investigation there was a need for the department to seek specialist legal advice.”

Head has a different view. He tells Newsroom there’s an irony in “spending conservation money to punish staff for doing their best for conservation”.

DOC appointed Daly in April, after it suspended Head. The HR consultant’s brief was to investigate whether disclosure of the photos was breach of DOC’s policies. He conducted interviews with several people, including Martin Kessick, the DOC deputy director-general who was meant to decide Head’s fate.

When Head resigned, in mid-June, Daly hadn’t finished his report. Last month, Edwards confirmed Daly had completed his “assigned work”. And last Friday, Edwards confirmed Radich, too, had finished up. She adds: “Should Nick Head raise any further matters in the future, the department will decide at that time whether or not to engage external legal advice.”

DOC director-general Lou Sanson tells Newsroom he doesn’t know about the external costs associated with Head. “Mr Head engaged a barrister and the department did likewise – I just don’t know the detail. Clearly, his barrister asked questions and we will have had to employ somebody to go and answer all those questions.”

Sanson – who says he didn’t see DOC’s Official Information Act response to Newsroom – confirms he’s been updating the State Services Commission on the issue. “Their view is that it’s been handled entirely professionally.” He adds: “They’re not expressing any issues with morale to me.”

(In an email from July, provided to Newsroom, Sanson tells a member of the public that the commission is “fully involved and backing both this issue and the overall morale of DOC”.)

Grievance claims mount up

Official DOC figures, provided under the Official Information Act, reveal that, since Sanson was appointed in 2013, the department has spent $419,099 on 44 personal grievance claims. It also made three confidential settlements, about which it would not release financial information.

The worst year, in terms of staff and contractors taking claims, was 2015/16, with 17. The most expensive, though, was 2016/17, when DOC paid $187,209 over 10 claims. The last financial year was the lightest in terms of payments, with $17,500 paid on six claims.

DOC’s HR director Edwards says: “All personal grievance claims and exit payments are assessed on a case-by-case basis and as the circumstances vary there is no specific trend to report.”

Sanson says there will always be room for improvement with DOC’s culture but he’s happy with the progress the organisation’s making. He’s had some “very positive feedback” on the organisation’s culture since we ran our first story on Head. “And I’ve had some people who want me to make improvements. I’m listening to those people that want improvements, and we’re making improvements.”

Last week, Christchurch paper The Press reported that Antarctica New Zealand – an organisation Sanson headed before leaving for DOC – spent more than $40,000 investigating CEO Peter Beggs before sacking him last month. The investigation took less than a month.

Newsroom has been reporting on grumblings within DOC. Some people say it has a toxic culture and have been critical of management’s embrace of corporate management tools. Over four years, DOC spent $3.73 million with Australian consultants Taribon, to restructure the department and train staff.

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

Leave a comment