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Politics

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Son in law: I repaid dress money

Last updated 09:26 16/10/2013

STACEY KIRK

The son-in-law of a woman at the centre of Kohanga Reo spending allegations says he had repaid the money spent on a wedding dress.

And James Gibbs told Fairfax Media today that he did not think the issue was worth "hanging a good family . . . out to dry".

On Monday, Maori TV's Native Affairs programme aired allegations that public funds were misused by Lynda Tawhiwhirangi, the general manager of the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust's commercial arm Te Pataka Ohanga (TPO).

The trust sought a court injunction to stop the programme going to air, but failed.

The spending on the wedding dress, along with a number of other purchases, is now the subject of an urgent independent audit commissioned by the Ministry of Education.

As well as the wedding dress, spending allegedly included the purchase of a Trelise Cooper dress, a 21st birthday present for a woman who was in a relationship with one of her sons and had carried out work experience at the trust, and a $1000 cash withdrawal from a BP station as koha for a tangi which she did not attend.

TPO announced yesterday a staff member had been suspended and credit cards issued to staff and governors of the organisation had been cancelled in the wake of the allegations.

Kohanga Reo receives about $79 million in government funding.

Gibbs approached Fairfax Media today to say he paid back the money for his wife's wedding dress.

"There has been a lot of reference to Lynda Tawhiwhirangi using trust money to purchase a wedding dress for her daughter," he said.

"I just want to clarify that this is not the case and I paid for the dress myself.

"On the date in question my wife went with her mother to a dress fitting - I'm not allowed to go as it's bad luck. On this occasion I had forgotten to give my wife the card that accesses our wedding savings account.

"Therefore, Lynda was in a bind and used the [TPO] card to pay the instalment on my behalf. I then transferred the money to Lynda at the next opportunity, and she repaid the card."

Gibbs said he did not think the spending was worth "hanging a good family, who's done so much for Maori language, out to dry".

But the spending prompted Education Minister Hekia Parata to summon Te Kohanga Reo National Trust Board members to her Beehive office last night for an explanation.

After the meeting, Parata and Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples said that while they were encouraged by the action taken so far, they had advised the trust an independent, specialist audit firm had been commissioned to review the controls the trust had in place to ensure public funding was used appropriately.

"The audit will be done with the full co-operation of the Trust," the ministers said.

"We have agreed a draft terms of reference of all public funding. We have agreed that this audit will be undertaken as a matter of urgency."

Prime Minister John Key promised the book would be thrown at the trust if the allegations were proven.

In a statement, TPO said it had cancelled all credit cards issued to the trust's governors and staff and their future use would be considered following an urgent investigation.

Directors had also suspended a TPO staff member and had launched an investigation into the staff members' actions, director Druis Barrett said.

An interim director would be appointed to the board and Kohanga Reo had commissioned an independent financial audit.

Parata said there were more than 400 Kohanga Reo around the country catering to about 9000 children.

"We have had no irregularities reported around that so we need to be in a position to distinguish between the provision of that service for early childhood and what is happening in the trust," she said.

Key said Kohanga Reo's books had been audited regularly and the audits had not raised any concerns.

"There's a wider issue, though, about other money spent," he said.

"If there are irregularities then I would expect the full force of the law to be applied."

Labour's Maori education spokeswoman Nanaia Mahuta said the investigation needed to be transparent.

"While an internal investigation is underway, the allegations have done significant damage to the trust and confidence of the many people who work to uphold tikanga, teach te reo and support tamariki to grow and thrive," she said.

"Some pretty serious questions need answering here - specifically in relation to what appears to be a pattern of excessive and inappropriate spending."

According to the Native Affairs programme, court documents allege the purchases were signed off by Tawhiwhirangi's mother-in-law, Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, a director for Te Pataka Ohanga and a lifetime member of the Kohanga Reo National Trust.

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- Fairfax Media

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