Home > The Body Politic > The Donghua Liu Affair: The OIA Gambit

The Donghua Liu Affair: The OIA Gambit

.

composite header - donghua Liu Affair.

– Frank Macskasy & ‘Hercules’

What appears to be an orchestrated  Beehive plot to dig dirt for throwing at Labour leader, David Cunliffe, ahead of a crucial parliamentary debate is revealed in a paper trail linking Immigration Minister, Michael Woodhouse, and the Parliamentary Press Gallery offices of the New Zealand Herald and TV3.

Hatched in National’s anticipation of a hammering in a debate on Wednesday 18 June (note the date) prompted by the resignation of ACT leader, John Banks, the plot was pivotal on having Cunliffe first deny helping Auckland businessman Donghua Liu with his residency application – before producing an eleven-year-old letter from Immigration’s files as proof that the Opposition leader was either a liar or had suffered serious brain fade.

On its own, the letter was innocuous. A routine inquiry seeking an estimate of the time required to process the application, the letter was signed by Cunliffe as the MP for New Lynn and dated 11 April 2003. It sat in a file until May 9 this year when Immigration officials in Visa Services began working on an Official Information Act (OIA) request received the previous day from the Herald’s investigations editor, Jared Savage – and subsequently declined;

.

jared savage OIA request 8 may 2014 declined

.

Savage’s OIA request resulted only in the release of  a brief, and somewhat pointless, Media Response to Radio NZ, dated 13 March 2014. This sole document gave a date when Donghua Liu’s business migration application was approved, and referred to a previous application being declined;

.

radio nz 13 march 2014 immigration nz

.

All other material was denied to him, ostensibly under privacy concerns.

Meanwhile, John Key’s Chief of Staff,  Wayne Eagleson, confirmed  that the Prime Minister’s office was made aware of the existence of the letter on the weekend of the 10th/11th May of this year;

.

3 july 2014 - wayne eagleson - donghua liu - prime minister's office - OIA request

.

Although deciding to withhold the whole file, including the letter, under the privacy clause in Section 9(2)(a) of the OIA, Visa Services sat on their response until, without any obvious reason, they advised Savage of their decision first-thing on the morning of Monday 16 June. Four hours later, on the same Monday, Savage emailed a fresh, more specific “Urgent OIA Request” for correspondence from MPs supporting Donghua Liu’s residency bid prior to 2005.

Jared Savage confirmed this to me in an email, on 17 July;

I initially asked for his entire residency file under the OIA on May 8. I note that the next day Minister Woodhouse asked for the file.

I was declined the entire file on privacy grounds on June 16. As I was really only interested in whether MPs were involved in his residency bid, I refined my request to ask for any correspondence from MPs because this is clearly in the public interest.

I specifically mentioned prior to 2005 because this is when Mr Liu was granted residency, against advice. There would not be any correspondence after he gained residency.

Unfortunately, it was clumsily worded because Immigration officials interpreted the word prior to exclude 2005 in the response. I then lodged a further OIA request which revealed Mr O’Connor intervened 3 times in the lead up to residency being granted – including waiving the English language criteria – the day before the 2005 election.

[…]

Coming back to the June 16 request, two days later, I received the letters. I have no idea why Immigration released it so quickly. Probably because they had already processed my earlier request of June 16 so the file was available, but you’d have to ask Immigration.

Savage’s OIA request on 16 June;

.

jared savage OIA request 16 june 2014

.

Savage received this response two days later, on 18 June – and this time his request was treated more favourably;

.

Immigration NZ - letter to jarerd savage - nz herald - donghua liu - 18  June 2014

.

The timing of the above release is critical to this Affair.

A similar request followed an hour later at 2.11PM, on the same day (Monday), from Brook Sabin, TV3 political reporter and son of National MP, Mike Sabin;

“Hello,

We’d like to know if any Labour MPs lobbied for Donghua Liu’s residency application back in 2005?

Also, can we please request under the OIA:

All briefing notes, correspondence and emails regarding Donghua Liu’s residency applications

Cheers”

Both requests were sent straight to the “OIA team” for processing.

The next morning, on Tuesday, at a media briefing on Labour’s Kiwisaver policy, Sabin’s TV3 gallery colleague, Tova O’Brien, asked Cunliffe four questions about his relationship with Donghua Liu. A transcript of the exchange (below) was published the next day (Wednesday) in identical format in several places simultaneously with the released letter, and was used by two National ministers to attack Cunliffe in the debating chamber that afternoon.

This was David Cunliffe’s Q & A to reporters on Tuesday 17 June – broadcast the following day  on Wednesday 18 June. Again, the dates are critical;

.

Does Labour remain confident in Cunliffe - donghua liu - TV3 - Tova O'Brien

.

Q: Do you recall ever meeting Liu?
A: I don’t recall ever meeting him, no.
Q: Did you have anything to do with the granting of his permanent residency?
A: No, I did not.
Q: Did you advocate on his behalf at all?
A: Nope.
Q:Were you aware of any advice against granting him permanent residency?
A: Not to my recollection.

Those questions – whether   audio, video, or written,   were generally not available until Wednesday.

On Wednesday,  Cunliffe was confronted by the press gallery (Ibid) on his way to the chamber and accused several times of having lied the previous day. Just half an hour after being given a copy of the letter, which he’d forgotten about, and possibly underestimating its value to his opponents, the Opposition leader continued to insist that he never supported or advocated for Liu’s residency.

He eventually had to leave to ask the first question of the day which is to Bill English who is naturally keen to exploit the opportunity to dent Cunliffe’s credibility,

“I find it a lot easier to stand by my statements than that member does to stand by his . . . that member has been remarkably inconsistent (about donations) . . . that member, who seems to have trouble agreeing with himself.”

English then led National in the weekly general debate. “The reasons no one trusts him (Cunliffe) is this” he says before quoting directly from the transcript of TV3’s questions and answers on Tuesday. “Today, of course,” he continues, “we have the letter that he wrote advocating exactly for his permanent residency.”

Also quoting directly from the transcript, Immigration Minister, Michael Woodhouse, added an intriguing reference to a second letter, from Labour’s Te Atatu MP, Chris Carter.

.

michael woodhouse -immigration minister - oia request - donghua liu - david cunliffe - 7 july 2014 - (7)

.

Released by his office at the same time as Cunliffe’s it was totally overlooked by the media in their rush to crucify the Labour leader.

Immigration Minister Woodhouse said;

“But do you know what? He (Cunliffe) is not alone.”

The Immigration Minister then quoted from the Carter letter, sent five month’s prior to Cunliffe’s, seeking “any consideration that could be given to expediting” Liu’s residency application and reporting that he had deposited $3 million in a bank account with a view to purchasing a building for redevelopment.

The fact that the letter identified the bank as the ASB in Auckland did not deter Woodhouse from getting in a cheap shot. “I hope it was not the Labour Party’s bank account,” he said, concluding:

“That was Mr Chris Carter, on behalf of Mr Dongua Liu. In fact, the letter was from Carter’s electorate agent and begins, like the Cunliffe letter, “I have been approached by a local constituent . . .”

Woodhouse was followed in the debate by Health Minister, Tony Ryall, who also spent most of his five-minute speech attacking the Opposition leader;

“So here is Mr Cunliffe, who only a few hours ago denied he had ever met Mr Liu and said the Labour Party never got any donations from Mr Liu. And here we have today a letter from Mr Cunliffe making representations on behalf of Mr Liu. It is just not consistent with what he has been saying previously. It is hugely embarrassing for Mr Cunliffe and for the Labour Party.”

Joining his frontbench colleagues, National’s Paul Goldsmith, said Labour Party members were “hanging their heads in shame.” He added;

“It is very interesting to see John Armstrong and many of the commentators saying right now, right here today, that Mr Cunliffe is in deep trouble and Labour is in deep trouble. It is a beautiful thing to watch. Thank you.”

Goldsmith was referring to the Herald’s political correspondent, John Armstrong’s column, that Cunliffe might have to resign, a piece (see below) consequently judged by many to be totally over the top. Unsurprisingly, many have called for Armstrong’s retirement.

The plan by National ministers to embarrass Cunliffe and to deflect from a potentially damaging debate on Wednesday however became derailed when the timing of the OIA releases went unpredictably awry.

The office of the Leader of the Labour Party was first advised of the planned OIA release of the two letters (Chris Carter’s 3 October 2002 and David Cunliffe’s 11 April 2003) at 12.10PM on Wednesday 18 June;

.

 

michael woodhouse -immigration minister - oia request - donghua liu - david cunliffe - 7 july 2014 - (9)

.

Ostensibly, the OIA public release was to take place one hour later.

Instead, the OIA release to Jared Savage took place only  thirty-nine minutes later, at 12.49PM;

.

 

release of OIA to Jared Savage covering email 18 june 2014

.

Sabin’s story appeared on TV3’s website at 12.53pm – four minutes after the OIA release was emailed to Jared Savage, and by Cameron Slater on his Whale Oil blog, eight minutes later,  at 12.57PM;

 

.

Brooke Sabin - TV3 - cunliffe's links to liu - donghua liu affair

.

whaleoil - Cunliffe's resignation may be in order - donghua liu affair

.

Another three minutes passed before John Armstrong declared Cunliffe to be “in deep political trouble; so deep that his resignation as Labour’s leader may now be very much in order”. It is possible that Armstrong was relying on the copy attached to the response to TV3’s OIA request, sent to the Minister at 12.30PM and presumably released directly from his office to Brook Sabin.

However, there is no documentation to that effect. So when and how did Brook Sabin obtain copies of David Cunliffe’s 11 April 2003 letter? It appears to have been released without the necessary “paper trail” as Emily Fabling, Executive Director of Immigration NZ stated at 1.31PM on 18 June, when referring to Savage’s OIA request;

“I have advised that the process [of releasing the information under the OIA request]  is consistent with our usual procedures and the Act, we have had legal advice and understand the political sensitivity and complexity, and a discoverable paper trail, if required.”

Armstrong’s column was published at 1PM – just eleven minutes after Visa Services emailed a copy of the letter at 12.49PM to Jared Savage;

.

John Armstrong - Cunliffe's resignation may be in order - donghua liu affair - nz herald story header

.

Kiwiblog published it’s story at 1.06PM;

.

Kiwiblog - Cunliffe's resignation may be in order - donghua liu affair

.

Some very tight time frames involved in writing media and blog reports after the 12.49PM OIA release.

In several cases the time-frames were simply unfeasibly tight to receive; digest; write up meaningful stories; proof-read; check legalities; and upload them onto websites.

Now here is where the timing of the OIA releases and blog/media stories appearing takes a very strange twist.

As detailed above Cameron Slater (or someone purporting to be writing under his name) wrote this piece on his blog Whaleoil at 12.57PM;

Jared Savage reports:

David Cunliffe wrote letter supporting Liu’s residency bid

Labour Party leader David Cunliffe – who said this week he had never met Donghua Liu or advocated on his behalf – wrote a letter to immigration officials on behalf of the controversial businessman who was applying for residency in New Zealand.

And mentioned above, at   1:06PM on Wednesday 18 June David Farrar wrote on Kiwiblog;

The Herald reports Cunliffe’s earlier denials on Tuesday:

Q: Do you recall ever meeting Liu?
A: I don’t recall ever meeting him, no.
Q: Did you have anything to do with the granting of his permanent residency?
A: No, I did not.
Q: Did you advocate on his behalf at all?
A: Nope.
Q:Were you aware of any advice against granting him permanent residency?
A: Not to my recollection.

Both refer to Jared Savage’s story in the NZ Herald, centering on the release of the David Cunliffe’s 2003 letter.

Except that Savage’s on-line story was not due to appear until 2.29PM;

.

David Cunliffe wrote letter supporting Liu's residency bid

.

So how did Slater and Farrar manage to refer to a story in their blogposts that had yet to be written and uploaded onto the NZ Herald website?

Ruling out time travel, there may be a very simple answer;

  • As was outlined above by Wayne Eagleson, the government was aware of Cunliffe’s letter as early as 10/11 May 2014.
  • An OIA request by Jared Savage was first declined – then expedited in almost a panic, in two days by Immigration NZ.
  • Brook Sabin lodged a similar OIA request to Jared Savage. He appears to have received the information he requested – without a corresponding paper trail.
  • Two right wing bloggers closely associated with National ministers, and who have been fed sensitive information in recent past, published blogposts referring to Jared Savage’s article – before that article was uploaded onto the Herald website.
  • In a released email, Cameron Slater admitted to a close working relationship with Herald reporter, Jared Savage;

.

slater email

.

And where did this jpeg of Tova O’Brien’s questioning to David Cunliffe – and ending up on Whaleoil – come from;

.

werwe2

.

Quite simply, the relationship and flow of information is a two-way process; journalists are constantly feeding information to Slater/Whaleoil (and to a lesser degree, Farrar/Kiwiblog).

It seems evident that Whaleoil and Kiwiblog jumped the gun in publishing their blog-stories, not waiting for Savage to first upload his on the Herald’s website. The result ended up with Farrar and Slater referencing Savage’s story that was still in the “future”.

As revealed with startling clarity in Nicky Hager’s book, “Dirty Politics“,  the government is not above using right wing bloggers to release damaging information or mount smear campaigns against Opposition MPs in Parliament.

The media, always reluctant to admit mistakes for fear of denting their own credibility, were more than happy to carry on with the line that Cunliffe’s letter was “proof” of Labour’s links to Donghua Liu. And keen to help in any way he could, the Prime Minister, John Key, continued to hint that he knew more about Liu’s claims to have made donations to the Labour Party.

Next morning, the Herald’s political editor, Audrey Young, reported from New York that,

“Prime Minister John Key believes the (sic) Labour has a lot more than $15,000 in donations from wealthy Chinese political donor Donghua Liu. He also acknowledged he had known for some weeks that Labour leader David (sic) has written a letter supporting Mr Liu’s application for residency. The release of the letter yesterday in the face of denials from Mr Cunliffe that he wrote any such letter has thrown his leadership into crisis.”

Key’s admission that he had already known about the letter prompted three different and conflicting accounts from Woodhouse in response to questions about how and when he’d informed his prime minister about its existence.

As well as providing a fine working model of the media’s bias against Labour and the woeful state of the parliamentary press gallery, the handling of the Savage and Sabin OIA requests by the Immigration Service and its Minister raises some interesting questions:

1. Who told Visa Services to respond to Jared Savage’s May 8 request at 8.59am on Monday 16 June?

2. Who told Savage to make a fresh, more specific request, the same morning and copy it to the minister’s press secretary?

3. Who told Sabin to put in a request on June 16?

4. Who told Tova O’Brien to ask those questions on Tuesday 17 June?

5. Who made the transcript of the questions and answers and how was it circulated?

6. After deciding to withhold the Cunliffe letter for privacy reasons, why was it released so quickly and without any further discussion of the privacy aspect?

7. It took the minister less than 20 minutes to approve the release of the Cunliffe and Carter letters. Is this a record?

8. How was it possible for the letter to be published in so many places so quickly?

If you still don’t think there was something fishy going on, turn to page 131 of ‘Dirty Politics‘ where Nicky Hager records a comment on the ‘Dim-Post’ from “Barnsley Bill” (aka Cameron Slater acolyte, Russell Beaumont) responding to a Danyl McLauchlan blog about opinion polls:

“Within 24 hours the poll are going to be the least of David Cunliffes problems. Keep an eye on the herald website, we are about to see pledge card theft relegated to second place as the biggest labour funding scandal.”

That was posted at 10.21AM on Tuesday 17 June — the morning that Tova O’Brien asked her questions and Immigration officials were racing round getting responses to the Savage and Sabin OIA requests ready to send to the Minister for approval prior to release.

What is certain is that the real reason for the urgent 48-hour response to the OIA requests was to ensure that the Cunliffe letter was in the public domain by midday on Wednesday 18 June.

The same day that the government was facing a torrid questioning by the Opposition after the conviction and resignation of ACT MP, John Banks. A government that desperately needed a credible diversion. Relying on another beneficiary-bashing story from Paula Bennett was simply not tenable.

This was the a Dirty Trick of the highest order, involving an eleven year old letter; complicit media looking for another  easy sensational news story; Ministers with connections to right wing bloggers; and journalists who run with the pack instead of asking questions that might yield real answers.

As they say in law enforcement circles; Motive. Means. Opportunity.

The government had all three.

This was the real story behind the Donghua Liu Affair.

.

Note

Questions on this issue have been put to Herald journalist, Jared Savage. Thus far he has declined to answer those questions.

Acknowledgement

Appreciation to ‘Hercules‘ for providing extra information and filling in the gaps. This was truly a team effort.

Update

Giovanni Tisa, through the blogger Jackal, asks some very pertinent questions here.

.

 


 

References

David Cunliffe-Immigration NZ 2003 letter

The Dim Post:  June polls (“Barnsley Bill” Commen

TV3: Does Labour remain confident in Cunliffe?

NZ Herald: John Armstrong: Cunliffe’s resignation may be in order

TV3: Cunliffe’s links to Liu

Whaleoil: BREAKING – David Cunliffe’s career, such as it was, is over [ UPDATED ]

Kiwiblog: Cunliffe wrote on behalf of Liu after denying he knew him or advocated for him

NZ Herald: David Cunliffe wrote letter supporting Liu’s residency bid

NZ Herald: The email that brought down Judith Collins

NZ Herald: Key on Liu-Labour link – More to come

Previous related blogposts

The Donghua Liu Affair:  Damn lies, dirty tricks, and a docile media

The Donghua Liu Affair threatens to unravel – PM and NZ Herald caught up in a dirty trick campaign?

The Donghua Liu Affair: the impending final act and curtain-fall in this smear-campaign

The Donghua Liu Affair: The first step to a complaint to the Press Council

The Donghua Liu Affair: responses from NZ Herald and Prime Minister’s Office – Is the PM’s office fudging?

The Donghua Liu Affair: Evidence of Collusion between the NZ Herald and Immigration NZ?

The Donghua Liu Affair: the Press Council’s decision

Other Blogs

The Standard: The Donghua Liu letter – is that it?

The Standard: Giovanni Tiso on Dirty Politics

The Jackal: 10 questions for journalists

 


 

.

20 september 2014 VOTE

Above image acknowledgment: Francis Owen/Lurch Left Memes

This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 11 September 2014 as “Was the Donghua Liu Affair another example of Dirty Politics?”

.

.

= fs =

Advertisements
  1. Deb Kean
    17 September 2014 at 3:25 pm

    This should make people stop and think… but I am not hopeful. It’s so blatant!
    Deb

    • 17 September 2014 at 8:07 pm

      Wait till the next installment, Debs, in the Daily Blog. Tomorrow or Friday, there is more to come out.

  1. 24 September 2014 at 8:01 am
  2. 10 July 2015 at 9:58 am
  3. 15 July 2015 at 8:02 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: