When he starts work on May 3, new chief executive Brent Carey will walk into a legal and financial maelstrom. Photo: Domain Name Commission NZ

Online bullying organisation struggles with employment actions, a big financial loss – and now a tribunal decision on whether it breached the privacy of three women.

The incoming head of online safety regulator Netsafe is confronted with a daunting array of legal and financial crises of the agency’s own making.

Brent Carey has been named to lead a publicly-funded organisation that’s been plagued with complaints of bullying, mismanagement, and reckless disregard for the rights of those whom it is meant to protect.

READ MORE: Bullying inquiry – Netsafe is not safe, say employees

The organisation is reliant for almost all its $4 million revenue on major contracts with the education and justice ministries. But in an all-staff bulletin this month, sighted by Newsroom, interim chief executive Andrea Leask says Netsafe is forecasting to make “a sizeable financial loss” this year. 

A big part of the cost blowout is understood to be the cost of employment inquiries and legal fees:
► the Human Rights Review Tribunal is set to rule on a complaint from three women who alleged Netsafe breached their privacy;
► an Employment Relations Authority hearing into one complaint against management is set down for June;
► a manager investigated over her treatment of colleagues remains on staff, and on leave, more than three months later.

Longstanding chief executive Martin Cocker was a subject of an inquiry into alleged workplace bullying when he suddenly resigned in mid-November, effective December 3. An employment investigation into his actions was suspended, half complete, but an external inquiry found against his wife, communications manager Angela Boundy.

Associated costs, including the three investigations into multiple internal complaints or counter-complaints involving the couple were believed to be approaching $500,000 in December, when Cocker left, and Boundy went on leave.

“Despite making cost savings throughout the year as opportunities have arisen, the loss has grown rather than shrunk,” Leask says. “Netsafe cannot sustain losses over consecutive years. As a result, we need to consider alternatives to bring Netsafe back to a break-even position in future years.”

“How much of the public money that’s been paid out has, ironically, been used to investigate bullying within Netsafe instead of within New Zealand.”
– David Seymour, Act Party

In an interview with Newsroom, Leask confirmed Boundy remained on leave, and expected she would return to work in due course.

Asked how long Boundy might remain on leave, Leask declined to say. “That is part of her personal information that I wouldn’t disclose.”

Netsafe is believed to have now retained high-flying PR agency Boyd PR to deal with public fallout from some of these disputes.

It was amid these challenges that Carey was this week named to lead the agency, which is contracted to run education campaigns about online bullying, and police the Harmful Digital Communications Act. Carey said: “Netsafe is an iconic Kiwi organisation and I’m excited about helping it grow.”

But in fact, it’s shrinking. There have been a number of resignations. And as a result of the financial troubles, Netsafe has been consulting staff this month on shutting down its policy and research unit, with ensuing job impacts.

Martin Cocker and Angela Boundy worked together at Netsafe, and subsequently married. Photos: Netsafe

Act leader David Seymour previously told Newsroom: “There’s also a question of how much of the public money that’s been paid out has, ironically, been used to investigate bullying within Netsafe instead of within New Zealand.”

Today he expressed continued concern. “As the Government considers hate speech laws, this sorry saga serves as a timely warning about who enforced them. Imagine an agency with this kind of culture judging whether your speech is acceptable.”

Carey is shifting from a role as New Zealand’s Domain Name Commissioner. The new chair of the Netsafe Board, Fletcher ICT boss Colin James, said Carey’s track record made him the ideal chief executive to secure Netsafe’s position as “the trusted source of leadership and best practice” for online safety.

Last night Leask, the acting chief executive, issued a written statement in response to Newsroom questions:

“Employer/employee confidentiality prevents Netsafe from commenting on employment matters that affect team members,” she said.

“We are unable to share financial information at this time as there are several initiatives underway, that need to be brought to a conclusion before we would be in a position to do so.

“Netsafe will be providing a statement in relation to the Human Rights Review Tribunal finding, once it is made public.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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