An independent inquiry has found no instances of sexual assault or harassment after complaints from Labour Party members about a man then working at Parliament for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s leader’s office.

Those complaints and media reports about them led to the resignation of former party president Nigel Haworth amid strong criticism from Ardern about how they were handled.

But the inquiry by Maria Dew QC, who interviewed the five complainants and the man, found no sexual assaults could be established nor instances of sexual harassment, as in some cases the behaviour was in private rather than party settings.

All it found against the man was that his behaviour was overbearing and aggressive in meetings. This did not amount to bullying, according to the executive summary of Dew’s report, and was not misconduct under party rules.

Dew, who also separately cleared Retirement Commissioner Dianne Maxwell of bullying allegations while finding she behaved inappropriately, suggested the man apologise to the women for his overbearing behaviour and that Labour convene a “restorative meeting”.

The summary released by Labour says the first woman complainant’s accusation of sexual assault at the man’s home could not be established. Dew says the woman and the man had been in a relationship over the previous eight months and their time at the house was personal, not party-related, with Labour’s code of conduct not applying. “Her evidence was incorrect in several critical aspects in relation to the events of that evening.”

Dew anticipates the first woman – “Ms 1” – would be distressed by the finding, as she had told the lawyer her relationship with the man had been damaging for her and there was evidence she had told people close to her of the alleged sexual assault after the incident occurred. While sexual consent given in a relationship on past occasions did not mean that consent was given on each occasion, Ms 1’s recollection of “material events about the evening in February 2018 was clearly incorrect and inconsistent with her own Facebook messages” with the man that month and afterwards.

Dew adds the woman accepted she provided misleading information to Dew’s investigation and Labour about an email she alleged contained an attachment about the alleged sexual assault. Her claim to have reported the incident orally to Labour “is rejected as improbable when assessed against the weight of other witness evidence to the contrary”.

The QC says Ms 1 claimed in a story in The Spinoff – which spurred Ardern’s strong criticisms and later Haworth’s exit – there was a further incident at a marae in 2017 involving the man. “Ms 1 has confirmed in this investigation that this incident did not relate to the respondent [the man under investigation by Labour and Dew].”

‘Not here to seek blame or malice’

Speaking after the report’s release, Ardern defended the decision to release some of the report over complainants’ objections, while acknowledging the process had “not been in anyone’s best interests”.

“We’ve been very conscious of people’s wellbeing, all parties – the complainants, the respondent – all the way through. And be very clear: the full report will not be released, should not be released.

“But of course there was an expectation that some indication of the conclusion that had been reached would [be released], but maintaining the privacy of the individuals involved has been important.”

Ardern would not go into detail on the misleading information provided to Dew’s investigation by one complainant, saying: “We are not here to seek blame, to seek malice – we are here to try and restore a process that should have been in place in the first place.”

She did not know whether or not the accused staffer, who resigned following the public outcry, wanted to return, saying any such comments would be “purely speculative”.

As to whether Haworth deserved an apology following the inquiry’s findings, Ardern demurred.

“At the time that Nigel resigned, he was very clear that the basis on which he was resigning was so that someone in a new leadership position could try and take forward learnings from what has happened here.

“I think that was an honourable decision at that time and I think that remains an honourable decision.”

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