Copyright: G J Wright
On the morning of Monday 13 October 1986, Glenys Skinner, wife of the incumbent manager at the Waitangi National Trust at Pahiai, telephoned me to ask if I had seen her husband Barry. I told her that he had visited me on the previous Friday morning, but that I had not seen him since. She asked that I tell him to ring her if he appears.
Later that day, I had a phone call from John Gardiner, the Chief Ranger at Russell, asking me to meet him at Waitangi National Trust at Paihia at 8am the following morning Tuesday 14 October 1986. He said that Barry Skinner appeared to have committed suicide. He added that in the interim, Head Office, Lands and Survey Department wanted me to take over as acting manager at the Trust.
I recalled the Friday visit, which did not strike me as in any way unusual. The Park Assistant, Mark Turner, was present during my conversation with Skinner. In light of what later happened, I often wonder if he had called, hoping to talk with me about his predicament, but was prevented from doing so by the presence of others. At that time, I didn’t know that the CID from Kaikohe had already interviewed both him and his wife, about apparent financial irregularities at the Trust. I later learned that a disgruntled former employee of the Trust had alerted the police after failing to spark interest in Wellington.
On the Tuesday morning, Barry’s car and boat trailer had been found at the launching ramp and two letters, one to his wife and one to the Police Senior Sergeant at Kawakawa, in which he made his intentions clear. A few days later, an aerial search found his boat off the coast just north of Whangarei. At Ruakaka, it was examined by the police who found Barry’s dive gear, a .22 rifle belonging to the Trust, and some personal effects. His diving weight belt was missing.
On the evidence, I concluded that Skinner had sat on the gunnel of the boat, wearing his diving weight belt and had deliberately tumbled over the side. He belonged to the local diving club and members made several fruitless searches in the deep and turbulent water off Cape Brett.
At the time of Skinner’s departure, the CID were considering prosecutions, but his presumed death prevented this. In the meantime, the convenor of the Trust management group at Lands and Survey Head Office, Dave McKercher, was desperately trying to keep the whole matter under wraps and from the press. He held that with the Governor General as then chairman of the Trust Board and the Prime Minister as his deputy, it was imperative to shield them from any scandal. I suspect that there was not a little self-interest at work too, since it is difficult to understand that as the offending had gone on for a number of years how it had not been detected by McKercher and management group. The auditors, when I questioned them about this, said that their job was to checks systems rather than financial affairs.
Skinner was on the same salary as myself, he did some moonlighting as an architectural draughtsman and his wife ran a small ballet school. When he first arrived at Waitangi he lived in the managers house on the site. He and his wife had three children, two teen boys who were adopted, and a younger girl, their own.
After a few years he built a house at Opua overlooking the creek in what can only be described as an exclusive location. He told me that the site had been Crown Land and that he had won it in a ballot. Even allowing for a hefty mortgage, I could not understand how he could afford such a house in such a location. The furniture was new, there was original art on the walls and the liquor cabinet was impressive — he accounted for this by saying that it was the liquor left over from the Waitangi Day celebrations. A year or so before the events I describe, I found that he had sold the Opua house and bought a small farm just south of Omarahoe Junction on State Highway Ten. In the meantime, he had also acquired a Dragon Class yacht and a Jaguar saloon car. To say that I was increasingly puzzled, would be an understatement, but I never suspected criminal activity as his funding source.
Meanwhile, investigations into the means and extent of Skinner’s depredations at the Trust continued and it soon became apparent that he had run the place as a personal fiefdom. Order books accounted for a forest of fencing materials and timber, very much more than could ever have been used on the Trust property where there was very little fencing in the area managed by him.
At the end of my second week as manager, Napier, the foreman, asked if he should continue the Friday afternoon custom of a happy hour at the workshop. Asked to explain, he said that Barry Skinner had authorised the collection each week of a case of beer from the Waitangi Hotel. It was becoming evident that Skinner and Napier were mutually compromised.
Sonny Napier had worked at the Trust for about thirty years and occupied a house which came with the job. He kept a file of commendatory letters from Trust chairmen and board members complimenting him on the state of the grounds on successive Waitangi Days. As time passed, the extent of his involvement became clearer; the Trust paid his power and telephone bills with members of his family transferring toll charges to the Trust account. He used a Trust utility vehicle as his own and on at least one occasion drove it to Auckland to attend a rugby match at Mount Eden — this would have remained under wraps, but for the fact that he had an traffic accident in Auckland which caused damage to the truck. I also found a rather disreputable man, a friend of his, occupying a small Trust property, rent free.
I instructed Napier that his use of the Trust vehicle was to be confined to Pahia unless he had written instructions from me detailing otherwise. Shortly after that I was away for two days when Mark Turner met Napier driving the heavily laden truck near Puketona junction. I tackled Napier about this and he said that he had been delivering property to the Skinner farm. I issued him with a formal written warning for disobeying my instructions on use of the vehicle.
The same day I had a telephone call from Sir James Henare, a member of the Trust Board, asking me for an explanation about the letter I had given to Napier. Sir James protested that I could not do that as Napier was a long time employee of the Trust and was entitled to consideration and respect. Sir James was then unaware of the other matters relating to issues of Napier’s honesty and reliability.
At the end of my first month at Waitangi accounts appeared from a number of traders around Paihia and elsewhere for goods and services far in excess of anything required by the Trust operation. A monthly bill from the Waitangi Hotel for upwards of $400 arrived and since the hotel was nearby I decided to investigate. I first asked Stuart Long, the manager, to cancel the Trust account and to let me have an itemised list of what was covered by the latest account. He finally, reluctantly, did let me have an itemised account which, as I suspected, covered beer, wines and spirits. A local dairy asked for several hundred dollars covering tobacco, papers, ice cream and groceries — this account too was paid and closed. I also closed an account at a local petrol station where fuel had evidently been bought for private use.
The Waitangi National Trust Board was established in 1932 after Lord and Lady Bledisloe gifted 506 hectares of land to the nation on his retirement as Governor General. In the Deed of Gift, Lord Bledisloe stipulated that the estate was never to be a burden on the tax payer, and as such it is not government funded. The estate is administered by the Waitangi National Trust Board, whose members represent Bledisloes, various sections of New Zealand people, including descendants of the original treaty signatories.
The Department of Lands and Survey supplied administration and a manager from the ranks of the National Parks and Reserves Ranger Service.
On February 5, 1987, the day before Waitangi Day, a meeting of the Trust Board was convened with the Governor General, Sir Paul Reeves in the chair. Sir James Henare was on the offensive from the outset questioning everything relating to the investigation and in particular matters affecting the employment of Sonny Napier. Henare was supported in this approach by an elderly gentleman, a Mr Pomare. I began to feel that I was on trial. Sir Paul did his best to ensure that the meeting remained focused on the facts and was backed by other members of the Board.
Some weeks after this event, Mr Pomare was shown into my office and said that he had come to apologise to me for the position he had taken at the Board meeting. He added that he had been unaware of the extent of the offending that had taken place and Napier’s part in it. Two weeks later, he died.
This was not the end of the matter however as a few days later I had a call from Dave McKercher who was at pains to point out that I should not tangle with a Trust Board member and should tread carefully over Napier who, if not related to James Henare, was member of his hapu (tribe). I suggested to McKercher that unless I stuck to my position, then my place as manager would become untenable. I opined that if Napier continued to misbehave, then there could be only one outcome. He said that if I took too strong a line then I would also have the Union on my back and that he personally would have no part in it. Indeed he would deny all knowledge.
I telephoned George McMillan, the director general of Lands and survey, to complain about McKercher’ attitude. He listened, but said that there was little he could do to help me as he would be relinquishing his position that day, but that he would mention the matter to Noel Coad who was returning from retirement as temporary DG.
I immediately rang the local Workers’ Union representative and asked for his advice. I told him what had happened and that in the face of Napier’s intransigence, dismissal was on the cards. He was delighted, best thing that could happen, he said. He added that they had been trying to get access to the Trust staff for years. Skinner had always referred him to Napier, but he had always been obstructive. Visit the staff now, I suggested and let me know if you have a problem.
Napier continued to resist any curtailment of his ‘rights’ as a long term employee and asserted that free electric power, telephone and use of the vehicle formed part of his contract with the Trust. He could not produce a copy of a contract, there was no mention of any such in his file. He clearly could not believe that the happy days were over and returned later to tell me that he had again consulted Sir James Henare who he obviously felt carried enough weight to protect him. I discharged him.
Roy Ututaonga, a cousin of Napier’s, who was already employed by the Trust had told me that he was disgusted by what he had seen. I had noted that he was a steady, responsible worker and so appointed him as foreman.
At a memorial service for Barry Skinner in Paihia, Harold Jacobs, the supervising ranger at Auckland, opined that he believed that once Skinner realised that the game was up, he took his own life because his pride would not allow him to face the music. Skinner’s eldest son Mark, was by this time a serving midshipman in the RNZN and the Navy had allocated him and the family married quarters in Devonport.
Barry Skinner was from Kent in England and before joining the Ranger Service had worked as a lighthouse keeper and had spent some time at the Cape Brett light. Before taking up the manager’s appointment at Waitangi, he had served as ranger at Pipiriki on the Wanganui River.
Barry was a personable character who would have impressed anyone he met and had obviously impressed the RNZN hierarchy who descended on Waitangi each year to organise and carry out the formalities at the February 6 celebrations. He was on first name terms with the officers up to and including the Commodore. I recall commenting to Harold Jacobs; if Barry and I were apply for a job, who did he think would be successful. I see what you mean, he said. He was the last person that anyone would have suspected of criminal activity and perhaps that is why he got away with it for so long.
Towards the end of March 1987 the manager’s position was advertised and I was asked if I would apply! I returned to my old position as Senior Ranger at Kerikeri.
Many people did not believe that Barry Skinner had committed suicide and for many years there were reports of sightings in Perth, Brisbane and elsewhere. In Mid-2009 I had a telephone call from Mark Turner who told me that he had recently talked with one of the Trust staff at Waitangi who said that he had recently been at a funeral for one of Barry Skinner’s sons in Auckland, when Skinner walked into the church!
Report to the Board
Period ending 25th January I987
On 14th October 1986, G.J. Wright, Senior Ranger, Kerikeri assumed the position of acting manager at Waitangi and this arrangement was confirmed in writing on 20th of that month by the Administrator, Honourable Koro Wetere.
The change resulted from the presumed death, by his own hand, of the incumbent manager, Mr. Barry Skinner. Board members will have been acquainted of matters leading to that event and the result of subsequent departmental and police enquiries.
On a practical level, the acting manager found deficiencies in many areas of administrative and operational procedures. Further irregularities were disclosed by the accountant and auditors. Steps were taken at once-to rectify these problems and reduce potential for future damage.
One anomaly, not the exclusive responsibility of the manager, but over which the late incumbent took the greatest illicit advantage, was that the manager was, and remains, the sole cheque signatory.
Other concerns will be discussed as appropriate under relevant headings below.
- Being totally unfamiliar with the Waitangi operation, the acting manager from the outset depended upon the goodwill and energy of the office and reception staff. All responded magnificently and it is doubtful if the visiting public were ever aware of a problem.
Special mention should be made of Mrs. Ann McMaster who stepped into the role of administrative assistant and although under some stress, maintained office routines and continuity until an office manager was appointed in December. Mrs. McMaster did not apply for the latter post, but remains a valued staff member.
Mrs. G. Skinner Administrative Assistant 16.10.86
Mr. M. White Workshop Foreman 26.11.86
Mrs. Kathryn Clinton Office Manager 15.12.86
Mr. S.T.M. Napier See addendum
Loss of the manager and administrative assistant simultaneously posed some problems, particularly in relation to office records. Most records have now been reconstructed and brought up to date, but some questions must inevitably remain unanswered.
Only during January has it been possible to come to grips with the Goods and Services Tax, but the Department of Inland Revenue have been most understanding.
Several aspects of cash security gave cause for concern. At the Visitor Centre, till floats were held overnight in the manager’s safe and it was found that all office and reception staff had access. At the Treaty House, the float was left in the till. At both points, good quality steel cash boxes have been have been affixed in concealed locations to accommodate floats. The manager and office manager alone now have access to the safe combination.
Trust order books were held by all senior staff and apparently used with few restrictions. All order books have now been withdrawn to the control of the manager. This facilitates financial control and affords an opportunity to scrutinise need, quantities, end use and to determine most favourable sources of supply.
Standard government vehicle running sheets were introduced for use in all Trust vehicles and staff instructed in maintenance of this record. All journeys beyond the reserve, immediate environs and Paihia Township now require the express authority of the manager. Substantial savings in fuel costs have been achieved.
No record of key issues was found, nor any evidence that persons leaving the employ of the Trust were relieved of keys. A key issue record is now maintained.
All main locks have been changed, or cylinders modified to a simplified keying system.
Security alarms in the workshop and Treaty House have been re-keyed and the numerical arming pad in the Visitor Centre re-coded.
Services of a local security firm are retained, but this function could well be reviewed when the manager is again living on the reserve.
Difficulties with visitor circulation, especially in the vicinity of the carpark, were immediately apparent and staff were much perturbed by the not insignificant numbers who sought to enter the grounds without payment. Observation showed that many visitors arriving at the carpark, including some organised bus tours, preferred to head directly for the canoe house and grounds beyond. In fairness, these visitors were following metalled tracks through gaps in traffic barriers which, whatever their intended purpose, were an open invitation. Staff were frustrated by this anomaly and although some visitors paid willingly at the Treaty House, many slipped through or disputed payment.
The problem was inadvertently exacerbated in November when a swathe of weeds choking kowhai in the area between the carpark and the canoe house, were removed.
In December, a post, rail and wire mesh fence was erected over about 130 metres between the Visitor Centre and the THC manager’s house. This was reinforced by small signs indicating direction of the entrance to the Visitor Centre. It is estimated that as many as 20% more visitors now pay for entry.
Some local people have complained at this measure on the grounds that they are now excluded from the small beach below the canoe house.
With passing of the holiday season and Waitangi Day, it is intended to turn much needed attention to the many pockets of noxious weeds in evidence about the reserve, with particular emphasis to high visibility areas such as about the Nias track.
I would draw the attention of the Board to the small and badly run-down lavatory facility near the boat launching ramp. It is understood that this facility was originally property of the Waitangi Golf Club and was left by the club for use of visitors. It is extremely difficult to maintain in a sanitary condition and some complaints have been heard of late. I recommend that serious consideration be given to removal and, if it is determined that such a facility is necessary In this location, to eventual replacement.
In this latter regard, the very successful facility in the Kerikeri Basin was designed by Mr H. Turbott, Consulting Architect, presently engaged on the Visitor Centre extension project.
Matters relating to the Visitor Centre extensions are moving apace and the architect, who visited on 23rd January, is now preparing working drawings.
All carving to the front of the Meeting House has been recently repainted and badly corroded storm water guttering will shortly be replaced in plastic.
Contractors are presently working on redecoration of the interior of the manager’s house which should be ready for occupation by the end of January. Curtains, apparently the property of the previous occupant and all removed, will need to be replaced. Floor coverings are old, soiled and in some places worn and should be renewed. Exterior paintwork also needs attention.
The workshop foreman who was responsible for all mechanical repairs and maintenance, left in late November. This is a key position and felt to be the prerogative of the incoming manager, who may also wish to weigh the convenience of an in-house mechanic against cost benefit of employing an outside contractor for this work.
- The Public
By far the most frequent complaint heard, almost exclusively from New Zealanders, is on the charge “To see our heritage”. Comment ranges from the curious and reasonable to the heated and unpleasant. Reception staff are often embarrassed and not infrequently hurt by observations on this matter.
I have caused to be displayed in both the Visitor Centre and Treaty House, a notice which reads:
Waitangi National Trust
The Trust, established by Act of Parliament in 1932, is an independent and self-supporting body which receives no funding from outside sources.
Income is derived from:
Admission fees Retail sales Leases
Income is applied to:
Maintenance of the Treaty Grounds. Conservation of historic buildings, Maintenance and development of public facilities, Research, education and interpretation.
Thank you for your support.
- The Public
It is considered that rather than repeat themselves or become embroiled in discussion, reception staff can conveniently draw the attention of dissenters to the notice. It may also be worthwhile to include a similar message at some point in the audio visual presentation.
- Audio Visual.
After some initial hiccoughs due, in part, to the acting manager’s unfamiliarity with the system, the audio visual has been relatively trouble free. Mr. John McKechnie of Wallace Gray Studios visited in November last and checked out some snags. Mr. McKechnie calculates that since installation, each projector has completed over 16 million operations and the tape deck rolled over 2700 kilometres of tape. He holds that it is the hardest worked such installation in the country.
The projectors were scheduled for replacement in I987 and fortuitously removal of sales tax has halved the price.
The contractors have expressed some concern at possible induction of salt laden air through the air conditioning system and the effect upon mechanical parts of the projectors. The air conditioning unit has now been adjusted to recycle internal air and checks will be made for signs of deterioration attributable to this cause during the annual major check in March.
Although a wide variety of comment on the content of the audio visual is still received, adverse comment is in the minority.
- Retail Sales
Regrettably I do not have any comparative figures for the period under review, but if the size of cheques to suppliers of handcrafts is any indication, then turnover of stock is steady.
Quality wood carving is moving well and several greenstone adze in the higher price range have sold in the past few weeks.
Mr. Te Whata of Kaikohe remains a very reliable source of supply and staff noted with sadness the death of carver, Mr. George Bryeton in November last.
I regret that my first and only report to the Board is such a tale of woe, hut I am confident that my successor, Mr. Jackson, will assume control of an operation in better shape than I found it in October. Much remains to be done and he certainly faces a challenge in the months ahead.
In many areas, the late incumbent was outstanding, but it has become clear to me over the past weeks that in some facets of management and administration he lacked the depth of training and experience necessary to the task. Further, it is my impression that at some point in the last two to three years he lost interest and all but opted out of his responsibilities
Waitangi 25th January 1987
Addendum to paragraph 2.
Mr. S.T.M. Napier Staff Foreman
Subject has been employed by Waitangi National Trust for some twenty-five years.
In December 1986 he was interviewed by the Criminal Investigation Branch of the New Zealand Police concerning statements made by a number of former employees of the Trust and which statements contain allegations of criminality involving Napier. As Napier’s replies to questions by the police tended to incriminate, he was formally cautioned, but continued to respond to questioning. Invited by the police to sign the completed statement, he declined.
An outline summary of evidence has been furnished to the Trust, but it seems that by reason of lapse of time or absence of conclusive proof of guilty knowledge, the police will not proceed on any of the allegations.
Napier asserts that most of the allegations cover matters which occurred with the knowledge and consent of the former manager and thus holds that he cannot be held personally responsible.
There can be little doubt that in a man of his years and experience he must have been aware that most of the acts admitted were criminal. Further, that whilst he may not have known the full extent of the former manager’s pecuniary theft, he was totally aware of other irregularities involving movable property of the Trust.
Napier enjoyed a number of unusual perquisites, including free accommodation, electric power, telephone rental and tolls, together with almost unrestricted use of Trust vehicles for his private purposes. Unlike other staff, including the manager, he was not required to keep a timesheet or record of hours worked.
It seems likely that he and the former manager were mutually compromised, each to the other.
Further, it has come to my ears that, affronted by administrative measures taken by myself to eliminate irregularities and abuse, he used long standing contacts to lodge complaints about myself at the highest levels of the Trust administration.
It is interesting and significant that Napier did not use these same lines of communication to alert the Trust to the activities of the former manager – activities to which, by his own admission, he was often party.
I have several times been obliged to interview Napier on his activities since I assumed control, most recently on a patently inflated overtime claim, and it is increasingly clear to me that subject is incapable of meaningful change or of adapting to management style which differs from to which he has been accustomed.
Napier is tolerated by other staff and regarded as something of a jest by the local populace who are aware of his record and predilections.
I personally regard him as a liability in whom I can repose no trust or confidence.
Plus ca change, plus ca la meme a choisi: