Matt Nippert must hardly have been able to to believe his luck yesterday when the latest source in the dizzying Dirty Politics drama -- Prime Minister John Key -- produced the email that, according to Key, finally exhausted Justice minister Judith Collins' apparently inexhaustible stock of warnings and chances.
Nippert has been working with Rawshark -- aka Whaledump, aka the source of the messages that form the basis of Nick Hager's book Dirty Politics -- to piece together a story showing that Mark Hotchin, the former co-owner of Hanover Finance, paid Cameron Slater and Cathy Odgers, via Carrick Graham, to attack and undermine the Financial Markets Authority and the Serious Fraud Office, who were investigating Hanover's collapse.
What Nippert describes is wholly in line with the modus operandi of paid smears outlined in Hager's book (Hager actually alludes to a Hotchin connection on page 87, but he didn't pursue the story). But it evidently appeared to be a story without direct political resonance -- until yesterday, when Key released a screenshot of an email in which Slater implicates Collins in an attack on Adam Feeley, the then-director of the Serious Fraud Office, saying:
I also spoke at length with the minister responsible today (Judith Collins). She is gunning for Feeley. Any information we can provide her on his background is appreciated. I have outlined for her a coming blog post about the massive staff turnover and she has added that to the review of the State Services Commissioner. She is using his review of these events to go on a trawl looking for anything else. It is my opinion that Feeley's position is untenable.
Suddenly, Nippert had an even better front-page story: The real reason behind Judith Collins' demise.
But there was more than that. Nippert himself is mentioned in the email. Slater, affecting the tone of a PR professional, says he will "cover Matt Nippert", as part of a drive to foster the story of an embattled, compromised Feeley with mainstream media journalists.
Slater also says that his accomplice, lawyer Cathy Odgers, had been briefing New Zealand Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan -- who wrote scornfully in this column and this one of Feeley's somewhat unprofessional act of celebrating the the SFO's prosecution of Bridgecorp by opening a bottle of champagne left behind by Bridgecorp directors when they vacated the company offices.
From Slater's email:
Cathy can outline her contact with Fran O'Sullivan separately. Basically though the Herald and other media are now picking up our lines that this situation is like "Caesar's Wife" where the SFO must be beyond reproach. If he nicked a bottle of wine what else has he nicked or hidden from receivers and liquidators? ...
Our (Cathy's) nickname for Feeley (Five Fingers Feeley) has stuck. journalists ringing me actually use to describe Feeley now in phone conversations.
I also spoke at length with the Minister responsible today (Judith Collins). She is gunning for Feeley. Any information that we can provide her on his background is appreciated. I have outlined for her a coming blog post about the massive staff turnover and she has added that to the review of the State Services Commissioner. She is using the review of these events to go on a trawl looking for anything else. It is my opinion that Feeley's position is untenable.
From O'Sullivan's column:
Collins - who is not known as the Crusher for nothing - is understandably furious that the SFO director, whom she personally hawked around town as the sheriff who was going to drive the fraudsters out of Dodge City in the wake of the multibillion-dollar finance companies sector collapse, would trivialise such an important issue.
Collins is a tougher bird than Prime Minister John Key or Finance Minister Bill English, who have each trivialised the matter. If I read her correctly, she will see this as a matter of character.
The full facts are yet to be disclosed.
The commission has to make full inquiries into just how Feeley came by the bottle of Gosset champagne. But clearly those inquiries must also involve the Bridgecorp receivers PricewaterhouseCoopers, given that Feeley's email directly mentions insolvency specialist John Waller.
There may be simple explanations why "three or four" bottles of champagne were left behind after the directors' "sudden exit". But Bridgecorp's investors are entitled to seek assurances that all the company's assets - however minor - were cashed up in the usual fashion and not purloined by the next inhabitants of their former offices.
What should concern Collins is other material now in circulation questioning just what is going down within the SFO.
Feeley's hired gun approach upset many of the SFO staff he inherited when he took over the office.
Slater's line seems to be echoed almost exactly in a Herald column written at the same time by Deborah Hill Cone:
What does it say to his staff that it is OK to take a bottle of wine from one of the companies you are investigating? If that is OK - hey, it's only a bottle of wine - what next?
O'Sullivan also scorns the "PR flannel" of the SFO's response in her column. And yet reading that column now, it could be seen to cohere to a countervailing PR strategy. One that nobody wrote any columns about.
The Slater email also says this:
I am maintaining daily communications with Jared Savage at the Herald and he is passing information directly to me that the Herald can't run and so are feeding me to run on the blog. in the meantime I also have additional information flowing in via my tipline. That information will be drip fed into the media or via my blog.
In a response posted on the Herald website yesterday, Savage confirms that he provided Slater with material that had come to him in the form of emails from inside the SFO:
Most of it was flotsam and jetsam, interesting tidbits of unverified information or gossip which I decided against pursuing as angles.
I cut and pasted the content of some of those emails, to remove any possible identifying features, and forwarded them on to Slater. So information was shared, there was a bit of "horse trading", we talked about developments as the story rolled along.
I think that largely this is the supping-with-the-devil that investigative journalists sometimes have to do. Savage was hardly the only journalist to be dealing with Slater behind the scenes. Savage's Herald colleague David Fisher, who later stepped "outside the tent", was among them.
In the same article, there's also a response from O'Sullivan, who insists that her opinions and sources were her own and says:
The inference in Cameron Slater's email that blogger and lawyer Cathy Odgers had any influence over that column is risible.
She had previously been rightly critical of Feeley's overreach in another case. And yet, it's difficult to avoid the view that O'Sullivan's column was written in the context of an atmosphere that Slater and his ghastly friends were working to create. We even have further confirmation that these people habitually gamed iPredict to create perceptions.
There are any number of stories in the past five years that we might now peel back and inspect in this light, and ask why we thought we what thought about those stories. Both columnists and reporters rely on their contacts and sources. It might well be asked when and where the source becomes the spin we're supposed to avoid.