It’s hard to imagine much being said in defence of James Wallace, the 85-year-old rich-lister and philanthropist who sexually assaulted three younger men in his Epsom mansion and then tried to use his money and connections to keep the scandal quiet.
A charitable view is that he was a pathetic old man, desperate to protect his exalted social position. A more sinister reading is that he considered himself above the law and had the hubris to think he could beat it.
Trying to pervert the course of justice is unquestionably the more serious of Wallace's crimes and by far the more contemptible. In the end he was rightly exposed, as were the low-life accomplices (two of whom were given immunity in return for their co-operation with the police) who accepted his tainted money in return for their help in a series of bizarre plans to protect him.
That Wallace (he's still "Sir" James, but not for much longer) was able for five years to keep his name secret was itself scandalous. Confidence in the judicial system is undermined when the rich can use avenues not open to ordinary New Zealanders in order to avert justice, or in this case to forestall it. It’s also damaging to social cohesion, because it creates the perception that there’s a privileged class that can use its wealth and power to escape consequences that would be unavoidable for those without money and influence.
It’s said that the mills of God grind slowly – but in the meantime, public trust in the integrity of the system is eroded, rumour, uncertainty and speculation flourish, and suspicion falls on innocent people.
Justice was finally done this week when the Supreme Court confirmed a decision by the Court of Appeal against allowing name suppression to continue. Whether New Zealand's highest court will remove five art works lent to it by Wallace in his role as a patron of the arts isn’t clear. The Supreme Court is only one of many institutions that find themselves embarrassed and compromised by their association with a man who now stands exposed as egregiously corrupt.
It’s interesting to speculate on what might have happened had Wallace pleaded guilty at the outset to the sexual assault charges against him and endured the shame of having his name published. There would have been a period of public disgrace following which the episode, along with his name, would very likely have been forgotten.
Prominent figures have come back after worse scandals; the entertainment world is full of them, to say nothing of Bill Clinton. Bear in mind that most New Zealanders had probably never heard of Wallace until this week; his name was well-known only in the top strata of society and in arty circles. But by going to extraordinary lengths to avoid fair and proper penalties for his actions, Wallace brought on himself intense media scrutiny (both Stuff and NZME, to their great credit, fought the suppression orders) and as a result must now endure far greater notoriety than would otherwise have come his way. Paradoxically, his attempt to keep his identity secret has had precisely the reverse result. This is a variant of the Streisand Effect.
The Supreme Court decision shows just how far Wallace was prepared to go – and who he was prepared to take down with him – in his determination to protect himself.
What has not been widely reported is that there was a second applicant for suppression in the case before the court. It was the McLean’s Mansion Charitable Trust Board (MMCTB), which is restoring an historic, earthquake-damaged Christchurch home – reputedly New Zealand’s biggest wooden house – with the intention of using it as an arts centre.
The court’s judgment reveals that in 2022, Wallace became chairman of the trust and undertook funding responsibility for the project. According to The Press, he paid off a $2.6 million loan and underwrote the entire project, which is expected to cost $10 million.
The MMCTB had submitted in the Court of Appeal that if suppression on Wallace’s name was lifted, the trust would suffer undue hardship as a result of being damaged by association – an argument repeated in the Supreme Court. According to the trust, the publication of Wallace’s name and the exposure of its relationship with him would hamper fundraising at a critical stage of the project and potentially deprive Christchurch of a public asset. The implication was that the entire project was at risk.
But the Court of Appeal pointed out that Wallace’s association with the trust began well after his convictions, and at a time when he knew that publication of his name was a very real prospect. To suppress his name in order to protect the trust, the court reasoned, would fundamentally distort the principle of open justice.
In a telling phrase, the court said the trust’s case had been advanced to give Wallace “an alternative pathway” to suppression. It pointed out that any hardship faced by the trust arose as a result of Wallace’s enhanced involvement in its affairs since his convictions, which the trust was aware of.
That seems a polite way of saying that having run out of other options, Wallace drew the trust into the sordid affair in the hope it would provide a smokescreen for him. And the trust, possibly desperate for funds, allowed him to do it. As a result the reputation of a worthy civic project may now also have been besmirched, much as it feared. (I note that The Press quoted a former trust chairman as saying he didn’t know of Wallace’s convictions at the time the trust decided to accept his money and hand control to him, but the Court of Appeal decision said otherwise.)
Of course, Wallace could argue that he involved himself in the trust for perfectly honourable reasons. Cynical observers, however, bearing in mind his previous conduct, could hardly be blamed for thinking his motive was devious.
In the final event, the three Supreme Court judges who heard
the application for further appeals weren’t buying any of it. The only issue, they said, was whether a
miscarriage of justice would occur if the appeals for continued suppression were not heard, and they were satisfied that criterion was not met.
It took a long time to get here, but better late than never. The irony is that having spent at least five years and probably millions in legal fees trying to save his reputation, Wallace has succeeded only in blackening it beyond redemption. Whether he ends up taking the McLean’s Mansion Charitable Trust down with him remains to be seen.