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Nick Smith 'would welcome' ACC scandal inquiry

Published: 5:50AM Thursday March 22, 2012 Source: ONE News / Newstalk ZB

Former minister Nick Smith says he would welcome an inquiry into his dealings with an ACC claimant friend of his, which led to him standing down from the Cabinet.

Smith yesterday announced his resignation as minister for Climate Change, Environment and Local Government over two conflicts of interest in letters he wrote regarding Bronwyn Pullar's ACC claim.

Rival politicians are calling for a full independent inquiry into the issue. Smith himself has said he would welcome an investigation.

He said it would show he was not threatened by Pullar in their dealings, and the vast bulk of her emails to him were not responded to.

However, Green Party ACC spokesman Kevin Hague told TV ONE's Breakfast that Smith's influence may have stretched further than this one case.

"All we've heard from is Nick Smith himself saying that his intervention had no effect," he said.

"Actually I think the New Zealand public deserves to have independent look at that because someone coming in from the outside would be able to look at whether what we've heard about so far is the full extent of Nick Smith's intervention."

ACC Minister Judith Collins has already said there are no investigations underway into whether Smith used his influence in other cases.

Hague said the public should not be satisfied that Smith's resignation marks an end to the scandal.

"What the Government wants to do is use his resignation to close the door on what's happened there. But what I think New Zealanders have a right to know, and be confident in the answer to, is whether or not political interference actually effects the way ACC manages its claims."

Labour is also pushing for a full independent inquiry into the affair.

Its leader David Shearer said the Government may hope the issue will go away but he believes the public deserves an explanation.

'Corruption, cronyism and political sleaze'

Smith's inappropriate handling of the ACC portfolio opened the Government up to speculation about corruption and sleaze, political commentator Bryce Edwards said.

There was also speculation in the debating chamber about the nature of Smith's relationship with Bronwyn Pullar before he was married.

Edwards said "It really was something ministers should not do and it has brought on all sorts of talk of corruption, cronyism, (and) political sleaze."

TVNZ's Q & A producer Tim Watkin told Breakfast the case highlights the pressure politicians are under, working in a small country.

Watkin said Smith had 21 years' experience as a politician and his loss from the Cabinet was a blow to John Key. He said the prime minister looked visibly annoyed in the debating chamber yesterday.

Environmental groups were also quick to register their disappointment that Smith was standing down, as he was known as a champion of green issues.

Two mistakes

Smith's first error was in July last year when a friend, former National Party official Bronwyn Pullar, said there were concerns about her status prior to a cycling accident she had in 2002.

He then wrote a letter "providing knowledge of her in that pre-accident period".

Smith said he made plain he was writing in the capacity of a friend and he did not intend to interfere in ACC decisions.

"It was an error in judgement" to have written the letter and to have done so on ministerial letterhead, Smith said.

The second mistake was to not declare a conflict of interest in his involvement with another request from Pullar in 2010, he told the House.

Then Associate Minister for ACC Pansy Wong had received a request from Pullar via an MP in March that year.

Wong declined as she knew Pullar and declared a conflict of interest. ACC then prepared a formal response which Smith signed off, but he failed to declare his own conflict of interest, he said.

Smith will stay on as MP for Nelson but opponents are already making designs on his seat should he step down from politics altogether.

Labour leader David Shearer believes his party could win Nelson should Smith walk away. He said it is a seat Labour has held in the past, and is one he believes it could win again.