*This story was first published on RNZ and is republished with permission*
Meng Foon has resigned as New Zealand’s Race Relations Commissioner this afternoon, after failing to disclose a conflict of interest.
The Chief Human Rights Commissioner wrote to the Government last month, outlining the undisclosed conflict.
Foon had been the director of a company that received government payments this term, including more than $2 million for accomodation, including emergency housing.
Associate Justice Minister Deborah Russell had been considering the matter with the preliminary view it was serious enough to remove him from the role.
But Foon resigned before a decision was reached, she said.
“Had the process been completed, it is probable I would have determined his actions represented a serious breach of the Crown Entities Act and I would have taken the next steps to recommend to the Governor-General to remove him from his office,” Russell said.
“It is critical that all people appointed to public roles comply with their statutory duties. Meng Foon had multiple opportunities to adequately declare these interests and did not do so.”
A statement from the Human Rights Commission this afternoon said Foon made the decision to stand down following revelations in April that he and his family made donations to Labour MP Kiritapu Allan, “including rent subsidy arrangements for her campaign office, in 2020, as well as a National Party candidate”.
The company of which Foon is a director, MY Gold Limited, was also found to have “received and still be receiving an income from the Ministry of Social Development for the provision of accommodation, including emergency housing”.
“This income has been received over several years, since 2019 and both before and after Foon became Race Relations Commissioner. It now amounts to a total of more than $2 million,” the statement said.
“In 2021 the commission launched a housing inquiry, which has been highly critical of the Government’s emergency housing system, describing it as a breach of human rights. Foon did not declare any conflict of interest at this time, nor subsequently.
“Foon has acknowledged his serious error of judgment in failing to adequately declare these activities, as required by the Crown Entities Act and Commission policies.”
In a statement to Checkpoint, Foon said he refuted strongly that he did not declare his conflict of interest of being an emergency housing provider to the Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Justice, before his appointment to the Race Relations Commissioner role in July 2019.
He said he had resigned for his error of judgment on “political donations”.
“I informed the Prime Minister that I will resign on 18/06, then let the Minister Deborah Russell know this Sunday formally with a letter to her, but the news has beaten me,” he said.
Foon said the sum received was about $2.3m over five years from 2018 to 2023.
However, he said he had been transparent with the commission, with his accountant declaring the sum when asked by the Chief Commissioner, despite there being no policy to declare financial figures.
“At the housing inquiry board meeting, I didn’t declare a perceived conflict as I didn’t think I needed to.”
He said in hindsight, he should have declared it and acknowledged he made a mistake.
In a statement, Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt said Foon was a “man of the people” who had made an “unfortunate mistake”.
“Apart from its staff and stakeholders, the commission’s greatest asset is its independence from government – its impartiality, its political-party neutrality. Meng’s resignation is an important and courageous act to protect that independence,” he said.
Rongomau Taketake Claire Charters praised Foon’s commitment to te Tiriti o Waitangi and his work on indigenous rights.
“It is difficult to contemplate a commissioner as dedicated to tangata whenua as Meng Foon, and he leaves a profound legacy,” she said.
“Meng shone a spotlight on racism, speaking up frequently in the media for those impacted by racism.
“Meng is familiar to many of us, for standing up for those affected by the harm of racism. He modelled how to listen and build bridges between communities.”
Foon was appointed to the role in July 2019 after nearly 25 years as an elected councillor for Te Tairāwhiti, including 18 years as Mayor of Gisborne.