The victims’ lawyer calls for an independent investigation, as details of another payout – to a former police inspector accused of violence.
Anti-bullying agency Netsafe has paid nearly $20,000 in a release settlement to a senior executive accused of assaulting and strangling a family member.
Lui “Lou” Alofa, a former police inspector, had earned a law degree after leaving the force and was appointed in-house legal counsel at Netsafe in late 2019, in hopes he would obtain a legal practice certificate.
But in early 2020 he revealed to managing director Martin Cocker that he faced two criminal charges. Netsafe negotiated his departure, with a payment.
Alofa did not initially request the removal of the name. But Netsafe asked that the settlement be kept confidential, as it fears news of the charges could negatively affect relationships with other agencies and non-governmental organizations responding to family and domestic violence.
However, he had to disclose the alleged assault to Women’s Refuge, as he was negotiating a memorandum of understanding with the organization. Women’s Refuge withdrew from the planned signing. “There was just no way to go on,” Refuge chief executive Ang Jury told Newsroom.
“I didn’t want to leave. But an agreement has been reached and I want to respect it.
– Lou Alofa
Alofa is due to appear again in Auckland District Court next week, June 15, charged with one count of obstructing a person’s breathing and one count of assaulting a person in a relationship family. He pleaded not guilty to both counts and is now awaiting trial by judge alone.
Yesterday, Alofa said he should have been treated as innocent until proven guilty, and he backed that up at the time.
“The problem I have is this confidentiality agreement,” he told Newsroom.
“Despite being accused of committing a crime and all that sort of nonsense…I feel a certain moral obligation to stick to the intent of the deal. I didn’t want to leave. But an agreement was reached and I want to respect that.”
Netsafe’s new chief executive Brent Carey last night refused to answer questions about whether to use a non-disclosure agreement and confidential payment to protect Netsafe’s reputation by hiding allegations of abuse by a member of staff.
“We are unable to comment on the existence or substance of individual employee issues, including employee relations regarding current or past employees,” he said.
“Domestic violence is an epidemic in Aotearoa and we have an agency here that is funded to help victims, making secret deals with public money with those who have been accused of bullying.”
– Ruth Money, Victims Advocate
It also would not disclose the organization’s staff turnover and the proportion of women who had left the organization. He did not answer whether he considers the repeated use of nondisclosure agreements in labor disputes and settlements to be good practice.
Netsafe receives funding of $4 million per year from the Department of Justice and the Department of Education, to conduct public education campaigns about bullying and other cyber threats, and to resolve complaints about harmful digital communications.
News of this employment settlement is just the latest in a series for blind officials.
► Last month, the small organization was forced to apologize after the Justice Department learned from a newsroom report that the cash-strapped agency had shut down its policy and research unit – Netsafe had not told officials that it was laying off staff whose work was essential to fulfilling its publicly funded contracts.
► The newsroom also revealed staff complaints of harassment within the agency, against Martin Cocker and another manager, his wife Angela Boundy. The investigation of Cocker was halted when he resigned without notice; Boundy went on leave for five months after the investigation ruled against her. It is understood that she has now left the organization.
► Another dispute – an Industrial Relations Authority case taken by former Netsafe education worker Pauline Spence alleging issues with her working conditions – has just been settled out of court. There were only two weeks left before going to a public hearing at the end of June.
► And in March, the Human Rights Review Tribunal ordered Netsafe to pay $100,000 in compensation to three women whose privacy it violated. The agency provided a stalker convicted of violence with information about them that enabled him to continue harassing them in civil court. The court found that Netsafe’s actions caused the women humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to their feelings.
Victims’ lawyer Ruth Money, who is linked to the women in the court case, said she was ‘deeply concerned’ that Netsafe’s management and board had tried to cover up the allegations of domestic violence and that they have gotten away with it so far.
“Domestic violence is an epidemic in Aotearoa and we have an agency here that is funded to help victims, making secret deals with public money with those who have been accused of bullying,” she said. .
“How can they expect to be taken seriously as an anti-bullying agency when they make secret deals on the back of serious abuse allegations like these?”
Money, who was a member of the government’s criminal justice advisory group, said there had been too many cases where Netsafe had allowed bullies. She called for an independent investigation into the agency. “They do more harm than good.”
Responsibility for investigating damage online should be given to the police, who are better equipped, she said. “The victims of Aotearoa deserve infinitely better care and services.”
Netsafe’s legal fees, investigations and settlements contributed to a financial explosion. Although the agency’s financial reports are sparse, its chief executive told staff that he expects to suffer “a significant financial loss” this year.
The series of employment, management and financial problems within Netsafe quickly became public knowledge, despite its repeated refusal to release information to the government and its stubborn disregard of the Official Information Act.
(Carey reportedly told staff last month that he would not respond to an OIA request from the newsroom until media interest subsided. This request for information was filed on 4 April, Netsafe was legally obliged to communicate its decision by May 5; last night it said: “We have provided you with our decision on our request and we are assembling the requested material which we have indicated will be provided to you and will be returned to you as soon as reasonably possible.”)
In part, the constant emergence of embarrassing information seems to be a reflection of staff frustration with management issues. But the ministry briefings show officials’ disappointment at not being briefed on the issues by Netsafe management, and instead having to read about them in the media.
At the Department for Education, Head of Infrastructure and Digital Scott Evans said the department was not aware of Lui Alofa’s exit package.
“The issue you are bringing to us is an employment issue between the board and the staff member,” he said. “We wouldn’t expect any contractor to share details about this, and there’s no indication that they have.”
It also comes at an uncomfortable time for education officials. They had requested additional budget funding for schools’ online safety services, which was labeled as going to Netsafe.
Last month, the office of Education Minister Chris Hipkins confirmed that the budget included additional funding of $1 million to Netsafe to help kura and schools with online safety, digital citizenship and well-being. -be in their school communities.
Netsafe management informed staff of the funding increase the day before the government announced in the budget – but it now appears their celebrations were premature. The ministry is not committing to awarding the $1 million contract to Netsafe.
“The department has received additional funds in the budget and is exploring options,” Evans said. “At this stage, we have not engaged any parties to undertake any additional work.”
Where to go for help or more information
► Women’s Refuge: the free national helpline operates 24/7 – 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843
► Shine National Freephone Helpline 9am-11pm daily – 0508 744 633
► It’s not OK: Infoline 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz
► Shakti: Provision of specialized cultural services for African, Asian and Middle Eastern women and their children. 24/7 Crisis Line 0800 742 584
► Ministry of Justice: www.justice.govt.nz/family-justice/domestic-violence
► National Anti-Violence Network: www.nnsvs.org.nz
► White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men’s violence against women www.whiteribbon.org.nz
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Netsafe was legally obligated to release the information by May 4. In fact, he was legally obligated to communicate his decision by May 5.