Saturday, April 3, 2010

The black hole called Tekau Plus

It’s disappointing, though hardly surprising, that other media haven’t followed up investigative reporter Phil Kitchin’s revelations in The Dominion Post about taxpayer money disappearing into the black hole called Tekau Plus.

No doubt they have their reasons. Fear of litigation would be one, though previous experience suggests Kitchin will have done his homework very carefully and lawyers will have pored over every word before publication. Reluctance to acknowledge that a competitor has broken an important story is a more likely explanation – and make no mistake, this is a very damning exposé. But other media will pick up the story only if heads start to roll, and so far there’s no sign of that happening.

Kitchin revealed that large amounts of public money, sunk into a project supposedly intended to develop Maori export businesses, were essentially unaccounted for. A report on Tekau Plus accounts cited in his story revealed that nearly $1.2m of taxpayer funds was paid to Fomana Capital, which ran Tekau Plus for the Federation of Maori Authorities, yet there were no descriptions of the services provided by Fomana or third parties it hired. Management and consultancy fees, those old familiar gobblers of public funds, seem to have swallowed up much of the dough.

Judging by Kitchin’s account, the project was fatally compromised by conflicts of interest. When Te Puni Kokiri CEO Leith Comer made inquiries into what Tekau Plus was achieving, the high-profile Maori business figures running the show reportedly tried to fend him off with woolly management-speak. “Establishing soft network clusters” and “bigger picture value propositions – phrases straight from the corporate bullshit manual – were a couple of the priceless examples Kitchin cited.

To his credit, Comer appears to have blown the whistle on the project (it was frozen last November). But his acknowledgement that the Tekau Plus contract was extraordinarily loose and wishy-washy will have only confirmed fears that Maori agencies operate according to very different rules of accountability, transparency and integrity from other recipients of public money. And politicians, frightened of appearing unsympathetic to Maori aspirations, turn a blind eye to the massive rorting potential created along the way.

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