Anti-bullying agency Netsafe paid nearly $20,000 as an exit settlement to a senior staff member charged with assaulting and strangling a family member.
Lui “Lou” Alofa, a former police inspector, had completed a law degree after leaving the police, and was appointed in-house legal counsel at Netsafe in late 2019, in the expectation he would get a legal practising certificate.
But early in 2020, he disclosed to the chief executive Martin Cocker that he was facing two criminal charges. Netsafe negotiated his departure, with a payout.
Alofa had not initially sought name suppression. But Netsafe asked that the settlement be confidential, as it was concerned that news of the charges might adversely affect relationships with other agencies and non-governmental organisations responding to family and domestic violence.
It had to disclose the alleged assault to Women’s Refuge, though, because it was negotiating a memorandum of understanding with the organisation. Women’s Refuge withdrew from the planned signing. “There was just no way that we could continue on,” Refuge chief executive Ang Jury tells Newsroom.
“I didn’t want to leave. But an agreement was reached and I want to respect that.”
– Lou Alofa
Alofa is to appear in the Auckland District Court again next week, on June 15, charged with one count of impeding a person’s breathing and one count of assault on a person in a family relationship. He has pleaded not guilty to both charges, and is now awaiting a judge-alone trial.
Yesterday, Alofa said he should have been treated as innocent until proven guilty, and he had argued that at the time.
“The problem I have is that confidentiality agreement,” he told Newsroom.
“Despite me being alleged to have committed a crime and all those sorts of rubbish … I do feel some moral obligation to stick to the intent of the agreement. I didn’t want to leave. But an agreement was reached and I want to respect that.”
Last night, the new Netsafe chief executive Brent Carey refused to answer questions about whether it was appropriate to use a non-disclosure agreement and a confidential payment to protect Netsafe’s reputation, by hiding allegations of violence by a staff member.
“We are not able to comment on the existence or substance of any individual employee matters including employee relations about current or past employees,” he said.
“Domestic violence is an epidemic in Aotearoa and here we have an agency that is funded to help victims, doing secret deals with public money with those who have been accused of bullying.”
– Ruth Money, victims’ advocate
He also would not disclose the organisation’s staff turnover, and the proportion of women who had left the organisation. He would not answer whether he considered the repeated use of non-disclosure agreements in employment disputes and settlements to be good practice.
Netsafe receives $4m a year funding from the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Education, to run public education campaigns about bullying and other cyber-threats, and to resolve Harmful Digital Communications complaints.
News of this employment settlement is just the latest in a series to blindside officials.
► Last month, the small organisation was forced to apologise after the Ministry of Justice learned from a Newsroom article that the cash-strapped agency had shut down its policy and research unit – Netsafe had not told officials that it was laying off staff whose work was critical to delivery of its publicly-funded contracts.
► Newsroom also revealed staff complaints of bullying within the agency, against Martin Cocker and another manager, his wife Angela Boundy. The inquiry into Cocker was cut short when he quit with little notice; Boundy went on leave for five months after the inquiry found against her. It is understood she has now left the organisation.
► Another dispute – an Employment Relations Authority case taken by former Netsafe education worker Pauline Spence alleging issues with her working conditions – has just been settled out of court. It was only two weeks away from going to an open hearing in late June.
► And in March, the Human Rights Review Tribunal ordered Netsafe to pay $100,000 compensation to three women whose privacy it breached. The agency provided a violent convicted stalker with information about them that enabled him to keep harassing them through the civil courts. The tribunal found Netsafe’s actions caused the women to suffer humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to their feelings.
Victims’ advocate Ruth Money, who is connected to the women in the tribunal case, said she was “deeply concerned” that Netsafe’s management and board attempted to cover up domestic violence allegations, and got away with it until now.
“Domestic violence is an epidemic in Aotearoa and here we have an agency that is funded to help victims, doing secret deals with public money with those who have been accused of bullying,” she said.
“How can they expect to be taken seriously as an anti-bullying agency when they perform secret deals on the back of a serious allegations of violence like these?”
Money, who was a member of the government’s criminal justice advisory group, said there had been too many cases in which Netsafe enabled bullies. She called for an independent inquiry into the agency. “They are causing more harm than good.”
Responsibility for investigating online harm should be handed to the Police, who were better equipped, she said. “Victims in Aotearoa deserve infinitely better care and service.”
Netsafe’s legal costs, inquiries and settlements have contributed to a financial blowout. Although the agency’s financial reporting is sparse, its general manager disclosed to staff it was forecasting to make “a sizeable financial loss” this year.
The string of employment, management and financial problems within Netsafe have quickly become public, despite its repeated failure to disclose information to government, and its stubborn non-compliance with the Official Information Act.
(Carey is said to have told staff last month that he wouldn’t respond to a Newsroom OIA request until media interest calmed down. That information request was lodged on April 4, Netsafe was legally obliged to communicate its decision by May 5; last night he said: “We have provided you with our decision on our request and are collating the requested material that we indicated will be provided and given to you as soon as it is reasonably practical.”)
In part, the steady emergence of embarrassing information appears to be a reflection of staff frustration with the management problems. But ministry briefings show officials’ disappointment at not being told of problems by Netsafe’s leadership, and instead having to read about them in the media.
At the Ministry of Education, infrastructure and digital leader Scott Evans indicated the ministry had not been aware of the Lui Alofa exit package.
“The matter you refer to us is an employment issue between the board and the staff member,” he said. “We wouldn’t expect a contractor to share details of that, and there is no indication they did.”
It comes at an uncomfortable time for education officials, too. They had sought additional Budget funding for school online safety services, which was tagged as going to Netsafe.
Last month, Education Minister Chris Hipkins’ office confirmed the Budget included an additional $1m funding to Netsafe to help kura and schools with online safety, digital citizenship, and wellbeing in their school communities.
Netsafe management told staff of the funding boost the day before the the Government announced it in the Budget – but it now appears their celebrations may have been premature. The Ministry is not committing to giving the $1m contract to Netsafe.
“The Ministry has received additional funding in the budget and is exploring options,” Evans said. “At this stage we have not contracted any party to undertake additional work.”
Where to go for help or more information
► Women’s Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 – 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843
► Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day – 0508 744 633
► It’s Not OK: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz
► Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and Middle Eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584
► Ministry of Justice: www.justice.govt.nz/family-justice/domestic-violence
► National Network of Stopping Violence: www.nnsvs.org.nz
► White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men’s violence towards women www.whiteribbon.org.nz
Correction: A previous version of this article said Netsafe was legally obliged to disclose the information by May 4. In fact, it was legally obliged to communicate its decision by May 5.