By: Natalie Akoorie
A public relations expert who cost taxpayers more than $20,000 when he was hired to manage fallout from the expenses scandal at Waikato District Health Board wrote the chairman’s resignation letter to Health Minister David Clark.
Senate SHJ general manager Julien Leys was hired by then board chairman Bob Simcock to cope with intense public scrutiny and “reset the media narrative” when chief executive Dr Nigel Murray resigned last October following an investigation into his expenses.
Murray was found to have breached travel policy at the DHB on some of the $218,000 of public money he spent over three years travelling for work.
But Leys – whose invoices were sent to the Ministry of Health – also advised Simcock on issues directly affecting his reputation, culminating in writing the chairman’s resignation letter, according to emails released under the Official Information Act.
Leys’ work included:
- Formulating a timeline around Murray’s controversial recruitment after Simcock was called on by critics to resign because he had been warned not to hire the chief executive in June 2014;
- Containing the damage to Simcock’s “position/reputation” following an open letter from a board member who expressed no confidence in the chairman;
- Writing Simcock’s resignation letter to Health Minister David Clark and a press release announcing Simcock would stand down on November 28.
Leys sent at least three invoices to Simcock who forwarded them to Ministry of Health director of critical projects Michael Hundleby. A fourth invoice brought the total to $20,859.
This was despite the DHB having its own in-house communications department and executive director of public and organisational affairs.
In one email dated October 10, 2017, Leys reiterated his advice that they stay “in control of the facts and keep it simple”.
“The attack to your position/reputation by Dave M [board member Dave Macpherson] is being couched in emotional/political terms that will appeal even though it is factually incorrect. I am working up a holding statement and Q&A.”
The statement, withheld by the DHB, was a “last resort” if Simcock was “pushed into a corner” where the facts needed to be corrected or emphasised, Leys wrote.
Simcock told the Herald he hired Leys on advice from the State Services Commission and Ministry of Health, which recommended the DHB engage external support to manage media pressure at the time of the investigation into Murray’s expenses
“I believe it was their view that DHBs are ill-equipped to manage that level of attention,” Simcock said.
He said the board was aware of the engagement and Senate SHJ was selected from a list of possible consultants provided by the ministry.
“Mr Leys’ job was to help the DHB ensure the public had access to accurate and balanced information where that was appropriate. Clearly we were not always successful in that regard.”
Up until the day before he resigned, Simcock’s emails show he was focused on remaining head of the board.
On Monday, November 27, 2017 Simcock replied to interim chief executive Derek Wright asking him to hold off officially making public a damning Audit NZ report into Murray’s spending.
“Julien Leys is working on a statement from me that we might use to try to reset the media narrative. Is there any reason the audit release cannot wait until Thursday?,” he wrote.
The next day the Herald ran a front page story about the Serious Fraud Office making preliminary inquiries into the case.
Simcock failed to show at a Waikato Regional Council meeting he was chairing and an email to him from Leys at 2.06pm entitled, “Finalised media release and letter to Minister”, included a draft letter of resignation to the Health Minister.
The letter stated Simcock had tried to do what he thought was best for the DHB but it also criticised a board member.
“The series of leaks from one board member in particular, and the related ongoing negative media speculation, have been a significant distraction for Waikato DHB that it could do without…”
Waikato DHB acting chair Sally Webb told the Herald the invoices were sent to the ministry because it was not appropriate to send them to existing staff and said the PR specialist was hired for the same reason.
“My understanding is that Bob informed the remuneration committee of the board verbally in late August that he had commissioned external comms support as it wasn’t appropriate to involve staff who ultimately reported to the CE.”
Hundleby confirmed the ministry’s support of private PR advice.
“Because of the seriousness of issues we recommended the DHB obtain expert advice on how to carry out any investigation and also expert advice about public statements about the investigation and related matters.”
He agreed to a request by Simcock for the ministry to pay invoices initially.
“Invoicing the ministry allowed the DHB investigation to get under way without alerting the CEO which could have compromised the investigation,” Hundleby said.
“The interim invoices were for legal fees and some public relations advice related to the investigation. Decisions about the expenditure involved were made by the DHB.”
A spokesman for Clark’s office said the Health Minister could not comment while the State Services Commission investigation into Murray’s expenses was ongoing.
Source: NZ Herald
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