Hard News by Russell Brown


We need to talk about Len

Len Brown is not going to resign. He's not legally obliged to do so and even if most of his councillors wanted him to resign -- which it appears they don't -- they wouldn't be able to make him. But his political career, if not terminally unwell, is certainly showing signs of chronic illness.

The Ernst & Young report commissioned in response to the revelation of the mayor's affair with Bevan Chuang found that in three years he stayed in hotel rooms 74 times, choosing to do so, he says, when he had a late function or an early morning appointment that made it undesirable to stay at his home south of Auckland. In all but nine cases, he or his wife paid for them. But he got deals:

The mayor has received nine complimentary (free) hotel rooms or suites which have not been registered as gifts or disclosed in his completed annual Declaration of Interests. The value of the complimentary rooms/suites based on rates provided by the hotels is $6,130.

The mayor has received hotel upgrades (to better quality rooms or suites) which have not been registered as gifts or disclosed in his completed annual Declaration of Interests. A total of 64 such upgrades has been identified. The value of the upgrades based on rates provided by the hotels is $32,888.50. 

Fifty seven of those 74 nights were spent at his regular hotel, the Stamford Plaza, and a room upgrade was given each time. The report says:

The Mayoress has advised there is an arrangement with The Stamford Plaza whereby the family (including the mayor) stay privately on a regular basis with the Mayoress being responsible for payment.

In providing context around the mayor’s hotel bookings, a number of the hotels advised us it is standard industry practice to provide room upgrades for VIPS from time to time and there are also valid commercial reasons why hotels may choose to also provide VIPS with complimentary (free) rooms.

The report assesses the value of the upgrades -- $32,888.50 -- on the basis of the so-called rack rates provided by the hotels. These are the book rates published by hotels and are considerably higher, sometimes by a factor of two or three, than what anyone actually pays. The marginal cost to a hotel of substituting one vacant room at check-in with a better vacant room is negligible, but assessed this way the value of the "gift" averages out at around $600 a time. It's an unrealistic figure.

Do ordinary people get discounts on the rack rate? Almost invariably -- see the prices on Lastminute, HoteClub or a dozen other websites. And upgrades? Sometimes, yes. A friend of mine once booked a room at the Quadrant and wound up with the penthouse for a night. But the mayor certainly seems to have had a better hit rate than most of us.

Do other VIPs -- Members of Parliament -- get check-in upgrades and flights and accommodation? You bet. Do they declare them in the register of pecuniary interests? No, and they're not obliged to if it's assumed they fall under the benchmark of $500, or $300 for ministers.

Some of them might be shifting uncomfortably in their seats as they look at those rack rate valuations, but it's unlikely they'll subject themselves to the degree of scrutiny the mayor has endured. And in most cases, there's probably no reason they should.

But it doesn't end there. On nine occasions in three years, the mayor accepted complimentary rooms, which much more clearly look like a gift.  Three of those freebies (and five upgrades) came from either of the two Sky City hotels, whose owner is in a particularly politically sensitive position around its plans for a conference centre and casino expansion. Plans the mayor publicly supports.

There are a range of reasons the mayor might support the conference centre plan, but his acceptance of Sky City's generosity on those eight occasions undoubtedly raises the perception of a conflict of interest.

The mayor has co-operated fully with the review -- but has he previously lied about any of this? In one instance, yes. I checked with Jared Savage at the Herald and they asked Brown whether he had, as Chuang seemed to recall, accepted free rooms for their trysts. He said he had not. But the review shows that on one of the nights they stayed together the room was free.

I've been struck by some of the wilder commentary around this. I couldn't quite tell whether Danyl was joking when he wrote this:

How would you feel if a right-wing politician secretly took $39,000 from a casino company to cheat on his wife while he was lobbying to have the law changed to benefit that casino company and then lied about it to the public?

But it's obviously  inaccurate. One Herald headline has referred to it as "the mayor's spend up", implying that he was staying at ratepayers' expense, which he wasn't.

The review also covers Brown's use of his work phone. Of a total 13,797 calls and texts made from his mobile in three years, 1,375 were to Chuang -- the vast bulk of them, you'd have to assume, in the form of text messages. In theory, under the Elected Members Technology Policy and Guidelines, mayors and MPs should account for and reimburse any and all communication with friends, family and lovers. In reality, I suspect this does not usually happen. But it is a breach of the guidelines if it doesn't.

There was also the use of the mayoral car and driver to get Chuang home after official functions on several occasions, and drove her privately during the day on others. Of this, the report says:

The use of the mayoral vehicle is governed by the Remuneration Authority determinations. In 2011 and 2012, the determinations were silent on the private use of the mayoral vehicle. The 2013 determination makes reference to the full private use of the vehicle. In all three years, the determinations are silent on the private use of the driver resource. The mayor has advised his understanding of the determinations is that the vehicle is available for full private use but he has also advised the driver is not available for private use.

Brown won't resign and the only way he could be made to is if he was convicted of a criminal office, which has not even been alleged. Were he a Minister of the Crown, serving at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, he would probably by now have put his hand up for some temporary time in the ministerial sin-bin, if only to make the story go away. That happens frequently enough in Parliamentary politics, but it can't happen in this instance.

Complicating the matter for his councillors is the fact that even if they were to shame the mayor into stepping down, that would not necessarily be in the city's interests. Brown's first term was notable for his ability to get disparate groups on the council working together. By contrast, the centre-right can't even work with each other. The shambles that led to a hopeless (and, as we now know, deeply compromised) newbie like John Palino carrying their flag this year is an indication of that bloc's coherence.

The Prime Minister, presumably similarly motivated, continues to declare his willingness to work with Brown and to emphasise that it is "an employment matter" for the elected councillors.

Auckland is facing both opportnities and challenges in the next few years, and -- in three years from a standing start -- Brown and his council have constructed plans to address both. The city is growing and changing in positive ways. But Brown has deeply harmed his own ability to continue to credibly fill that role. Can anybody look at him now and be confident there's no more to come?

Now, one of his councillors, Sharon Stewart wants Brown forced to reveal the identies of the 10 campaign donors who  gave more than the new limit of $1500 for anonymous donations, to a total of $70,000. The money was given under the old law, where the threshold was much higher, and it would seem a fairly grievous breach of the privacy of the donors to just ignore the law and out them. Certainly, no one else is being asked to do this. But that's the predicament Brown has placed himself in. He will permanently be under suspicion.

A good part of Brown's image has been that of the clean-cut do-gooder, albeit one who had to ban himself from the use of a credit card after his use of one as Mayor of Manukau City came to light. People gave him the benefit of the doubt on that, and handsomely re-elected him this year. I think it's pretty clear that whatever is the limit of the public patience, the mayor has already come close to exhausting it. It's going to be an interesting three years.

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