A member of the panel which investigated claims against a staffer in the Labour Party leader’s office has supported former president Nigel Haworth’s claim that they were not told about sexual assault allegations during the process.
The man, Auckland lawyer and Labour Party official Simon Mitchell, has made the remarks after hiring a forensic computer specialist to prove he never received complaints of any alleged sexual misconduct.
The legal letter, and an accompanying statement from Mitchell, claims the woman – referred to in an article by The Spinoff as ‘Sarah’ – never raised allegations of sexual assault in her meetings or email correspondence with Mitchell or the panel.
The Labour Party volunteer told The Spinoff she was subjected to “sustained sexual assault” by the staffer in 2018, when she was 19.
The article stated that Sarah raised the allegations of sexual assault during an internal inquiry, with the investigating panel, comprising three members of the New Zealand Council, the Labour Party’s governing body – including Mitchell.
The party has maintained it was not made aware of allegations of sexual assault relating to this staff member. However, this contradicts the survivor’s account, and an email released to The Spinoff.
The woman also claimed she emailed Haworth in May and the panel in April about the alleged sexual assault.
The bungled handling of the investigation led to significant pressure for Haworth to resign, which he did last Wednesday.
Allegations disputed by panel member
In a statement announcing Haworth’s resignation, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she had accepted his offer to step down after receiving some of the correspondence sent by complainants to the party several months ago.
“It confirms that the allegations made were extremely serious, that the process caused complainants additional distress, and that ultimately, in my view, the party was never equipped to appropriately deal with the issue.”
Ardern discussed the correspondence with Haworth, and while he stood by his statements on the issue – including that “none of the complaints the party investigated related to sexual assault” – she believed mistakes had been made during the process.
“Raising an allegation of sexual assault is an incredibly difficult thing to do; for additional distress to be caused through the way those allegations are handled is incredibly upsetting,” she said, adding that she apologised to the complainants on behalf of the party.
On Monday, Mitchell reiterated Haworth’s statement, in relation to the nature of the complaints, in a legal letter and accompanying statement sent to news organisations.
“Mr Mitchell is gravely concerned at allegations that he was the recipient of verbal and written disclosures of sexual assault by the subject of the investigation against the complainant…
“Regrettably the statements by the complainant that Mr Mitchell received such information are untrue,” the letter from Mitchell’s lawyers said.
The statement details Mitchell’s timeline of events, and interactions with the complainant, referred to as Sarah.
He also contracted a forensic expert to search his computer and correspondence with the complainant.
“In relation to the emails, Mr Mitchell was sufficiently concerned at the allegation that he had previously received the information, that he engaged a forensic computer expert to formally examine his computer system,” the legal letter said.
“From that examination it is quite clear that he did not receive this information from ‘Sarah’ in either of the emails alleged, and any suggestion by her that he did is not credible.”
Mitchell’s lawyer said this was a “significant issue” for him, and any further suggestion he was the recipient of the sexual assault allegations before the publication of The Spinoff article “will be treated seriously”.
According to Stuff, the investigation panel also included Christchurch-based Tracey McLellan, who has previously worked for MPs Ruth Dyson and Megan Woods, and Honey Heemi, of Labour’s Maori council.
Asked about whether Mitchell’s letter was helpful, Ardern told media: “My view is that at this point we need to focus the process on the complainants – continuing to prosecute this case in this manner does not help those complainants.”
Ardern said she was “absolutely focused” on creating an environment where the complainants’ concerns could be heard by a QC, rather than the party.
“Continuing to contest this in the public domain serves no-one, not least the complainants – they now have a place where they can be heard…
“Best practice dictates that we do not continue to undertake a forensic analysis of an incredibly sensitive complaint in the public domain.”
National Party deputy leader Paula Bennett, who has been advocating on behalf of some of the complainants, said Mitchell’s decision to release a legal letter and media statement showed that Ardern had “no control of the process”.
“On the very afternoon that the Prime Minister has gone out and just announced that she’s got these two processes underway and that she’s going to show all of this respect to the victims, one of her own council members that was involved in those decisions has made a statement that is very much victim-blaming, and yet again hangs those victims out like that.”
A nightmare week
The statement and letter comes after a nightmare week for the Labour Party, and the complainants involved in the internal investigation.
There have been ongoing questions of who in the party knew what, and when. The most recent failings were compounded by the fact the party had not learnt from its mistakes, following the alleged sexual misconduct at a Young Labour summer camp in February 2018.
Ardern has now launched another investigation, bringing in Maria Dew QC to review the party’s internal investigation after the complainants’ concerns the allegations of sexual assault were ignored and the process was botched.
Dew will report directly to the Prime Minister, who said she was frustrated with the contradictory claims. The terms of reference for the review had been finalised but would not be released at the request of the complainants.
Ardern said Dew wanted to look at the substance of the complaints and not the Labour Party processes.
Labour’s lawyers Kensington Swan had already started work on a report into how the party had handled the complaints process, and once completed would pass it onto a third party for a review.
Ardern held two conference calls with the Labour Party’s NZ Council during the weekend, and she planned to meet with the complainants at their convenience. Those meetings would be guided by experts.
During her post-Cabinet press conference on Monday, she said there were no excuses for the way the party handled the complaints: “We have a duty of care and we failed in it.”
Dew was due to report back in a month.
Where to get help:
National Rape Crisis helpline: 0800 88 33 00
Safe to Talk national helpline 0800 044 334 or safetotalk.nz