Coal mine spies return despite govt ban

PRIVATE INVESTIGATORS working for the state-owned coal company Solid Energy have defied a direct government instruction and again tried to infiltrate an environment group that opposes Solid Energy’s coal mining plans.

In meetings over the last two months, private investigator Gavin Clark offered to pay a Christchurch man, Rob Gilchrist, to report on the Save Happy Valley group’s activities and to provide passwords for access to the group’s communications.

A year ago the Sunday Star-Times revealed that Clark’s firm, Thompson and Clark Investigations (TCIL), had hired a Christchurch student, Ryan Paterson- Rouse, to join the Save Happy Valley core group and regularly pass the group’s internal communications and other information to Gavin Clark.

Prime Minister Helen Clark said at the time that the spying was “unacceptable behaviour from a state-owned enterprise” and should stop. SOE Minister Trevor Mallard gave formal instructions to Solid Energy’s board that the practice must cease. But TCIL has been caught out trying to do the same sort of spying on Save Happy Valley again.

Mallard said on Friday that if this was the case, either the private investigators’ contracts should be terminated or the jobs of the Solid Energy staff involved should be in question.

Gilchrist, who runs a small electronics company and is a supporter of Save Happy Valley and other protest groups, says he was first approached by Clark in mid-February. He contacted the Star- Times immediately and made tape recordings of three meetings with Clark. The tapes record Clark’s efforts to recruit Gilchrist and long conversations where Clark explains the spying he wants.

Gilchrist said he was not a core member of Save Happy Valley, having been to only one or two meetings, and he probably could not have given Clark the information he wanted. He was more active in animal rights groups.

Clark would not comment or even confirm whether his company worked for Solid Energy. He later provided a written statement saying: “I would like to make it clear that we received instructions from Solid Energy Ltd in 2007 that its security arrangements were to specifically exclude ‘paid for’ informants and that TCIL has adhered to this instruction.”

But his statement adds that “the use of informants, both paid and unpaid, is legal in New Zealand and indeed most other countries”.

Clark said many security companies “including our own, do seek help from informants from time to time to help clients protect their property and business interests from damage by others”.

Solid Energy provided a statement from CEO Don Elder saying the same thing. They had spoken to TCIL that day and he was emphatic that “Solid Energy is not aware of anything that would indicate the TCIL . . . have not complied with the company’s directive.”

But on the tapes, Clark urges Gilchrist repeatedly to give him access to Save Happy Valley’s internal communications and plans in exchange for money. Whether Solid Energy knew what Clark was doing is unclear.

Mallard was not happy to learn his no- spying instructions had been ignored. “It’s fair to say I was very angry last time but this time no one can claim ignorance [of the instruction].”

He had talked to Solid Energy and received a “flat denial that they did it”. “While it would be inappropriate for me to interfere in operational matters, if someone did that without permission of Solid Energy, my expectation would be that they would terminate the relationship. If it was done with Solid Energy involvement, clearly it would be an employment question for the people concerned.”

Save Happy Valley spokesman Alan Liefting said it was disheartening to see Solid Energy was still pursuing the group. He did not know Gilchrist personally.

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