A leaked letter critical of Newsroom and an elected Hawkes Bay Health Board member has been sent to all maternity staff at Hawkes Bay Hospital by DHB chief executive Kevin Snee.

In it, he accuses a board member of criticising the care provided to the mother and baby at the centre of the Oranga Tamariki uplift attempt on May 6 “without a full knowledge of what occurred”, before apologising that maternity staff “have been subjected to this unfounded criticism”.

Elected HBDHB member Jacoby Poulain published a column a week after the attempted uplift questioning the treatment of the mother and baby by the DHB. Since its publication, she has faced a barrage of recrimination from DHB chairperson Kevin Atkinson, with Atkinson publishing a column in which he wrote that the only way Poulain could criticise the DHB was if she resigned.

In the June 21 leaked letter from the CEO, titled ‘Thank You from the CEO’, Snee writes that “the media reporting relating to the recent baby uplift has been biased and unbalanced”.

Newsroom put the leaked letter to Poulain, who responded by saying: “I find the fact that the CEO is emailing staff and referring to me as a board member and criticising what I’ve said very problematic. My comments at the time were based upon reports from credible sources, including those who were at the event, assuming they were true, and subject to investigation, which I was calling for at that time. The evidence at that time gave me great concern for what happened at the hospital. It is my job to oversee matters and the performance of the DHB, and it concerns me that the CEO undermines that function of accountability I have as a board member.”

“I’m concerned that the actions of the CEO criticising me as a board member undermine the accountability function of the role that the governing board has over the operations of the DHB. He’s interfering and undermining the governance, which is not acceptable. I’m feeling bewildered at the behaviour, it’s out of line, unlawful, inappropriate and it needs to be rectified. I feel they are threatening my job and that is wholly inappropriate and disturbing. I have done nothing wrong. All I’ve done is attempted to hold this organisation to account for what I saw as a deeply disturbing situation. The CEO is not operating in good faith.”

In the letter, Snee goes on to assert that media “do not have a full understanding of custody orders, the significant powers that Oranga Tamariki and police have, and that the DHB had very little control in these circumstances”. He also writes: “At all times a midwife or nurse was in the room. Sadly, this was never shown in the edited footage of the video, widely circulated from Newsroom.”

This is disputed by many parties, including the mother at the centre of the incident, who says DHB staff were in her maternity room some of the time. She was also upset at the presence of hospital midwives and nurses when her own midwife was prevented from entering the hospital to support her.

Chairman of the Takitimu District Māori Council Des Ratima, who negotiated with police and Oranga Tamariki until 2am to prevent the young mother’s baby from being uplifted, says Snee does not have the full picture. “This is shocking denial. Kevin Snee is no more in possession of the full picture as any of his staff. I have spoken to one of the counsellors in the room that night and she confirmed that the video was accurate and not edited. The independent enquiry we are seeking includes the actions of the DHB and the police.”

“Kevin Snee is saying that they (the DHB) took care of the mother and baby. I’m saying they didn’t. They had a duty of care which they didn’t enact. He’s saying maybe it’s because Oranga Tamariki had control of everything so they couldn’t do much else, my view on that is so would you let somebody come into your house and tell you how it works. Yet they did that with Newsroom, the DHB kicked them out, because it’s their house, so how can you then say ‘we were powerless’. I totally support what Jacoby is saying in terms of there was a dereliction of care for this mother and baby. It was the DHB who didn’t step up to the bar and insist ‘we are in charge’. Duty of care would cover all that.”

Prominent Napier QC Russell Fairbrother, who came out in support of Poulain speaking out about the DHB’s actions over this incident, says it is not the remit of the CEO to criticise an elected board member.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for an employee to criticise an employer, and all respect to Dr Snee, he is an employee of the board. So it has to be a board issue. I don’t think he has a remit to be honest with you. Surely if there’s any criticism of any board member, it can only come through the board.”

Jacoby Poulain says: “My comments were not unfounded. In fact they were based upon an extraordinary amount of evidence which now the country has seen with their own eyes.

“In my opinion I think the CEO is totally out of line to make comments criticising a board member’s viewpoint on matters. And to go further I believe what he said is defamatory.

“I find it particularly problematic that the CEO is singling out a board member when I have never referred to any staff or service or any individual within it, including the CEO. I have referred only to DHB which is in my opinion wholly appropriate and in fact my only to comment on. I find it concerning also that he appears to be speaking on behalf of the board chairman, I don’t think that’s his role to do.”

In the letter, Snee also accuses Newsroom of compromising “the privacy of a number of people”.

There are now four independent investigations underway as a result of the Newsroom footage.

When approached for comment, Snee replied: “This is a complex case and the DHB considers its staff acted appropriately and professionally in very difficult circumstances. I stand by my letter and I stand by my staff. Because this case is before the courts, I will not be making any further comment regarding the events of that day.”

Bonnie Sumner is part of the Newsroom Investigates reporting team

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