By: Natalie Akoorie and Frances Cook

Video: The spending of public money by former Waikato DHB chief executive Dr Nigel Murray has been referred to the Serious Fraud Office after an investigation found more than half his claims for travel and accommodation were unjustified.

The spending of public money by former Waikato District Health Board chief executive Dr Nigel Murray has been referred to the Serious Fraud Office after a high-level investigation found more than half his claims for travel and accommodation were unjustified.

The State Services Commission investigation, the findings of which were announced this morning by Commissioner Peter Hughes, found Murray’s actions were “serious and sustained breaches of the State Sector Code of Conduct”.

The four-month inquiry, ordered by Minister of Health David Clark last November when Murray’s expense receipts became public after repeated media requests, found Murray’s conduct fell short of what is required of a state-sector leader and that oversight of his expenses by the former board chairman lacked rigour.

The investigation found Murray had unjustifiably spent $120,608.

The breaches uncovered were so serious the SSC has now referred the matter to the Serious Fraud Office, to decide if it meets the level of criminal wrongdoing.

Commissioner Peter Hughes didn’t hold back at a press conference about the investigation.

“This is hard-earned taxpayer money, and I think Dr Murray’s behaviour is an affront to the taxpayers of New Zealand.

“They have every right to feel aggrieved.

“They should expect the highest standards from the state servants that they entrust with the stewardship of our state services.”

He said this case was one “out of the box”.

“When you’re in the business of public service, the highest standards are called for.

“Taxpayers of New Zealand work hard, and they expect that money, every cent of it, to be spent on health services.

“In this case it was not, and that’s not good enough.”

Murray resigned on October 5, ending a Waikato DHB investigation into staff concerns of unauthorised spending.

Nigel Murray quit Waikato DHB in October last year following revelations he had breached travel policy. Board chair Bob Simcock, right, resigned in November over the debacle. Photo / File.

The commission’s investigation, led by John Ombler QSO, found:

  • Murray spent $218,209 of Waikato DHB money on travel, accommodation and related expenses between July 2014 and October 2017;
  • There were 129 items of expenditure on travel and accommodation during the former chief executive’s tenure;
  • 59 of the items, valued at $101,161, did not meet Waikato DHB’s policies for appropriate authorisation;
  • 45 of the items, valued at $120,608, were unjustified when measured against the Auditor-General’s guidelines;
  • Murray spent $74,265 on personal costs and had to reimburse the money;
  • Murray has repaid $54,831 and $19,434 remains in dispute;
  • More than half of Murray’s travel and accommodation (by cost) was unjustified, and about half was unauthorised or had authorisation deficiencies;
  • Murray’s relocation expenses contravened the agreement made in his letter of offer and the Waikato DHB policy on staff travel and accommodation.

“Dr Murray made significant claims for reimbursement of travel and accommodation expenditure that were outside the DHB’s policies and spent public money on travel and accommodation without authorisation, which led to serious and sustained breaches of the State Sector Code of Conduct,” Hughes said.

“The investigation report shows Dr Murray spent public monies on private travel and made claims for the reimbursement of expenses he was not entitled to claim for.

“As the chief executive he should have known better. He was supposed to be setting an example for his organisation.”

Hughes said it was not the role of the inquiry to determine whether there was any criminal wrongdoing.

“That is why I have referred the investigation report to the Serious Fraud Office.”

The investigation also blamed the Waikato DHB as being too trusting.

“The board did not carry out the normal checks and balances expected at a big public sector organisation, which allowed Dr Murray’s unauthorised and unjustified expenditure to continue for too long without being addressed,” Hughes said.

“The former chair’s oversight of Dr Murray’s expenses lacked the rigour and standard of care expected.”

He said Simcock retrospectively approved 20 of Murray’s travel applications, and at least 42 of the total travel applications approved by the former chairman had no or inadequate evidence of business purpose.

“The investigation found the former chair was too trusting of Dr Murray. And Dr Murray let the chair down.”

Hughes said the board acted with good advice and urgency to address the growing concern about Murray’s conduct, but should not have allowed him to resign rather than face disciplinary action.

“The board put pragmatism ahead of principle and the public interest,” Hughes said.

“That was not the right thing to do. This meant Dr Murray did not have to answer for his conduct. And that was wrong.

“Serious allegations ought to be fully determined wherever possible, so that either a person’s name is cleared or they are held publicly to account for their actions. Public accountability and transparency is essential to maintaining public trust and confidence.

“If Dr Murray was employed by me I would have terminated his employment based on what I have seen.”

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