National MP Barbara Kuriger accused Fonterra of “corruption” and pushed for a public official to be fired over the prosecution of her son for ill treatment of animals, Marc Daalder reports
Hundreds of pages of emails between National Party MP Barbara Kuriger and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) reveal a pattern of personal attacks on officials in relation to animal mistreatment charges filed against her son Tony.
The correspondence, obtained by Newsroom under the Official Information Act, shows Kuriger used her Parliament email address in more than 50 emails with MPI, including while she sat on the Primary Production Select Committee and held National’s agriculture portfolio. Many of these emails included National Party letterhead.
On several occasions throughout the exchanges, Kuriger disclosed the conflict of interest with statements such as “I declare my interest” or “continuing to declare my conflict”. This become less common as time went on, with most references to the conflict occurring in 2018.
MPI investigated lameness issues with dairy cows on an Eketehuna farm in 2017, after 23 had to be euthanised. Tony and Louis Kuriger, who were sharemilking and owned the cows, were charged under the Animal Welfare Act in 2018. As part of a plea deal, charges against Louis (Barbara Kuriger’s husband) were dropped and Tony pled guilty in 2020 to six charges of wilful ill-treatment and one charge of ill-treatment.
The emails and text messages released to Newsroom date from late 2018 through to July of this year. Kuriger held the agriculture portfolio from June 2021 through to October of this year. She stepped down from the role after someone claiming to be an MPI employee notified National leader Christopher Luxon of the long history of correspondence.
While Kuriger conceded the dispute had “created a blurred line with my portfolio responsibilities”, the specifics of the interactions with MPI have never been detailed before now.
They show a pattern of attacking the independence, professionalism and character of MPI and its employees.
In October 2019, Kuriger sent a letter to the director-general of the department, Ray Smith, from her Parliament account. In it, she detailed what was already a years-long dispute over the prosecution of her son Tony for mistreatment of dairy cattle.
While Tony pleaded guilty the next year, Kuriger said she “thought MPI were better than this but I’ve been disgusted by what has happened”.
“Ray, you have already seen some behaviour of people in your organisation which has shocked you – there is a whole lot more to this sordid mess. Your animal welfare officer made more visits to the [local pub] with [Fonterra] than he did to the farm,” she said.
In the same exchange, she accused a Fonterra employee of “corrupt behaviour” and “corruption”.
The next year, Kuriger submitted four formal complaints to MPI about the conduct of Fonterra, the MPI investigator and the owners of the farm that Tony had used for sharemilking. This also came from her Parliament address.
While the agency launched an independent investigation into the complaints, Kuriger become upset when she learned MPI’s Director of Compliance was involved, as he had previously signed out OIA responses to Tony.
“We no longer have an independent process here […] This is not the independence I was offered,” she wrote on a Sunday afternoon. The next morning, she highlighted the breakdown in relations with the ministry.
“The level of trust I have with MPI prior to November 2018 is low. I am not prepared to subject my family again to a low-trust situation, they have been through enough.”
At this stage, Kuriger held an associate agriculture role for the National Party.
In May 2021, nearly a year after the court case had concluded, Kuriger renewed her attack on the investigator who spearheaded the case, in another email to Smith.
“The reality is that for your animal welfare officer was that he didn’t give a flying fig about animal welfare, he had pressing priorities at the Celtic Bar in Palmerston North where he sorted out how to prosecute a ‘high-profile’ person,” she alleged.
A month later, she pushed for an MPI employee who had been involved in the case to be fired. It’s unclear whether the individual is the same person as the investigator, as most names are redacted in the documents.
“I expect to see his resignation soon,” Kuriger wrote to Smith and another MPI manager. She also attacked the investigator and another person involved in the case once again, saying “the only thing missing when [they] sat in the back of the courtroom was the popcorn”.
Then in June of this year, when the Ombudsman had declined to investigate MPI’s conduct in the dispute, she reached out to Smith via text to seek a meeting over coffee.
“The pieces of the puzzle are largely together now, despite the two-faced pretence of one of your team members and the ways that others promised one thing and did another. The term to use may not be corruption but there is ethical fading in your ministry by a handful of people,” Kuriger wrote. She had held the agriculture spokesperson job for a year by this time.
Only in the more recent correspondence did Kuriger begin to use her personal email. During a November 2021 meeting over her son’s case, held with MPI officials in her Parliament office, she handed over a physical letter seeking information under the Official Information Act and Privacy Act in her son’s name. She also followed up on her son’s OIA requests through her Parliamentary email.
In the end, MPI commissioned Mike Heron KC to review its conduct in the case. That review was released publicly this week and cleared the ministry of any wrongdoing.
Heron found the investigation into Tony Kuriger in the first case was not motivated by political purposes, despite the Kurigers’ repeated private and public claims to the contrary. He also found the agency’s resolution of the four formal complaints was appropriate, that correspondence subsequent to the court case was handled well and that a range of issues raised by Kuriger during his investigation didn’t stack up.
“The matter has been thoroughly explored in the independent review by Michael Heron KC and Erin McGill. The report speaks for itself and we consider the matter closed,” an MPI spokesperson told Newsroom.
Kuriger said she was still reviewing the report with her lawyer, having only received it this week.
A spokesperson for Christopher Luxon said he hadn’t yet had a chance to speak about the report with Kuriger.
“However, as he said two months ago when she resigned from her portfolios over this same matter, it was a serious lapse of judgment for her not to have recognised that she had a significant conflict of interest when she pursued this personal dispute.”
A spokesperson for Fonterra, responding to the “corruption” allegation, said the matter had been concluded.
“These matters relating to the Kuriger family have been addressed in court proceedings and the report by Mike Heron KC. We consider them to be dealt with appropriately.”