EPA closes the shutters after its CEO is cleared by select committee majority

Environmental Protection Authority board chair Kerry Prendergast has announced – in effect – that her agency’s chief executive, Dr Allan Freeth, has been cleared of misleading Parliament’s Environment Select Committee during a session on 15 February.

She then said the EPA will be making no further statements or accepting any requests for interviews on issues raised during a briefing of the select committee.

But the report on the briefing (HERE) suggests there’s more to be explained or clarified.

First, Government members of the committee used their majority numbers to vote down an opposition request to have the Ministry for the Environment’s chief executive, Vicky Robertson, answer questions about her involvement in the departure of EPA chief scientist Dr Jacqueline Rowarth from the authority.

Second, a minority of the committee’s membership believe the independence of the EPA “has been compromised with the early departure of a highly competent and respected Chief Scientist”.

The minority contends the timing of this departure can be directly connected to concerns raised by new ministers soon after their appointment.

Kerry Prendergast has brushed over the schism within the select committee and the questions raised by the dissidents.

According to her press statement (HERE), the select committee concluded in its report, released on 4 May 2018:

“We are satisfied Dr Freeth did not mislead us at the EPA’s 2016/17 annual review hearing. The majority of us do not have any concerns to raise after reviewing the written evidence and our hearing with Dr Freeth.”

Ms Prendergast’s statement excluded the next significant chunk of the conclusion:

“Some of us are concerned about the correspondence from the Associate Minister and the Ministry for the Environment to Dr Freeth about the chief scientist. Given the importance of the EPA’s scientific independence, we do not consider that it was appropriate for either to criticise the chief scientist.”

At the heart of the issue is Dr Rowarth’s departure from the EPA earlier this year and the question of whether political influence was brought to bear on the authority over statements she had made about irrigation.

The select committee’s briefing report recalls that during the EPA’s 2016/17 annual review, MPs  asked what policies it has to protect its scientific independence.

“We were specifically interested in any conversations between the chief executive and the Associate Minister for the Environment, Hon Eugenie Sage, regarding the EPA’s chief scientist. We noted that the Associate Minister had been critical of some of the views expressed by the chief scientist.”

“We heard that Dr Freeth had not had any discussions with the Associate Minister about the EPA’s role, independence, or expression of views. Dr Freeth said that the EPA protects its independence very strongly.”

The select committee initiated the briefing to examine whether he misled it regarding the independence of the EPA.

Its reportsays:

“In carrying out this briefing, we did not find that Dr Freeth had misled us.”

But the report also says:

“National Party members of the committee remain deeply concerned about inappropriate interference by Ministers and senior public servants in the early and unexpected termination of Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) Chief Scientist Jaqueline Rowarth’s employment.

“Evidence presented to the committee by Dr Freeth differed in both substance and fact from answers initially provided in the House by Associate Environment Minister Sage.

“Evidently, and only after public scrutiny by way of release of information sought under the Official Information Act, the factual discrepancies between Dr Freeth’s evidence and Minister Sage’s answers to Parliamentary Questions, Minister Sage corrected her version of events relating to meetings, correspondence and emails concerning her role and the early departure of Dr Rowarth from the EPA.

“Notwithstanding Minister Sage’s inability to recall important meetings, who she did or didn’t meet with, when she did or didn’t have meetings and her forwarding of highly critical media reports to Dr Freeth, National Party members of the committee remain unsatisfied with explanations provided by both the Minister and Dr Freeth.

“In particular, and as a result of his second appearance before the committee on the 5th of April 2018, we are also concerned about the role played by the Chief Executive of the Ministry for the Environment.

“It became clear by way of Dr Freeth’s evidence and upon reading of information released under the Official Information Act that Vicky Robertson had involved herself directly in emails, correspondence, meetings and discussions regarding her concerns about the views being expressed by Dr Rowarth in her EPA role.

“We were repeatedly told by Dr Freeth that the EPA took its role as an independent advisor seriously. Therefore, to have the Chief Executive of the Ministry for the Environment involving herself in matters concerning the independence of view and the performance of their chief scientist was clearly inappropriate, unwise and in breach of the legislative function of the EPA.

“We were therefore naturally disappointed Government members of the committee used their majority numbers to vote down an opposition request to have Vicky Robertson appear before the committee to answer our questions about her involvement in Dr Rowarth’s departure from the EPA.”

The National Party members of the committee conclude from the evidence:

1) Minister Sage inappropriately forwarded an email on that was critical of the EPA chief scientist, a conclusion that she has subsequently admitted.

2) Minister Sage inappropriately discussed the issue of the EPA Chief Scientist’s performance and employment with the Ministry resulting in the Ministry’s Chief Executive writing a highly critical letter to the EPA.

3) Chief Executive Vicky Robertson wrote a highly critical letter to the EPA regarding its Chief Scientist after consulting with Ministers Sage and Parker on its content and that this letter constituted an inappropriate interference in the EPA.

4) The EPA’s answers to questions by the Select Committee at its hearing in February were misleading at best, dishonest at worst. Any reasonable person would have concluded from the EPA’s answers that no issues had been raised about the chief scientist when the issue had been raised at the highest levels involving the Ministry’s Chief Executive, both Minister Parker and Minister Sage and the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.

5) The independence of the EPA has been compromised with the early departure of a highly competent and respected Chief Scientist and the timing of that departure can be directly connected back to the concerns raised by the new ministers soon after appointment.

Ms Prendergast obviously is hoping there will be no further pursuit of these matters.  Her press statement concluded:

“The Environmental Protection Authority will be making no further statements or accepting any requests for interviews on the issue. Our efforts will remain focused and committed to furthering our vision of protecting the environment and the people who live and work in it, for a better way of life.”

The briefing report says the documents, advice and evidence the committee received are available on the Parliament website.

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