I was paid to betray protesters

Student confesses he infiltrated group opposed to Solid Energy mining

An Auckland private investigation firm is paying agents to infiltrate and spy on environmental, peace and anti-vivisection groups for its clients, including state-owned enterprise Solid Energy.

The tactics by Thompson & Clark Investigations are believed to be a first for New Zealand and have shocked the groups and civil rights supporters, who have demanded answers from the government about taxpayer-funded spying.

A spokesperson for State-Owned Enterprises Minister Trevor Mallard told the Sunday Star-Times Mallard would be taking the matter up with Solid Energy chairman John Palmer.

Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder told the Star-Times he was not prepared to comment on whether such action was occurring but said he was unconcerned: “What do I feel about that? So what?”

Advertising itself as New Zealand’s leading corporate intelligence agency, Thompson & Clark Investigations’ speciality is helping controversial companies to spy on their opponents. The Star-Times has documents identifying two young people who were recruited by the private investigators and became trusted members of target poltical groups.

The pair wrote regular reports on the groups’ meetings and plans, collected information on special subjects of interest to the clients and helped set up systems to automatically redirect all the groups’ internal emails to the private investigator’s Auckland offices.

Ryan, a 25-year-old Canterbury University student, confessed on Thursday when confronted by the Star-Times, admitting Thompson & Clark paid him on behalf of Solid Energy to infiltrate Christchurch environment group Save Happy Valley. The group opposes plans for a new government- run open-cast coal mine on the West Coast because of climate change and threats to a critically endangered endemic snail.

Last year the Star-Times revealed Solid Energy had engaged Thompson & Clark for surveillance against the group. Group members found men in camouflague clothing and later a hidden video camera spying on its protest camp. But infiltrating groups and having spies at the centre of their planning and activities is a whole new level of interference.

Ryan said he was attracted into the work by the easy money. He was approached by private investigator Gavin Clark through a mutual friend about eight months ago and began spying immediately.

Ryan said he was paid $400 a month to attend weekly meetings plus extra for other activities and admitted the lure of the money was too great to resist.

“I regret hurting people who I call friends and who felt trust in me.”

Save Happy Valley spokesperson Frances Mountier said she was appalled a government-owned company would act in such a way.

But Elder said he was comfortable with Thompson & Clark’s actions, “including the things you’re suggesting may have happened, if in fact they have happened and I’m not confirming that”. He would continue to expect “that sort of service from firms it engaged”.

Barry Wilson, of the Auckland Council for Civil Liberties, described the infiltrators as “corporate spies” and said the state-funded spying activities were repellent.

Evidence suggests a second student, Somali, was paid by Thompson & Clark to join two Wellington groups – Wellington Animal Rights Network, which protests about vivisection and cruelty to animals, and peace group Peace Action Wellington. Over the past two years, she was a core member of the groups taking minutes at meetings and joining all their activities – while reporting to clients interested in the vivisection and arms industry intelligence. She denied any involvement when the Star- Times confronted her last week.

Thompson & Clark’s “corporate intelligence” operations are run by co-director Gavin Clark, a former police officer, using techniques from police undercover operations. Last week, he told the Star-Times he had no knowledge of the two students and knew nothing about hiring them to infiltrate and spy on groups. The following day, after Ryan had confessed working for him, Clark issued a statement: “It is standard security industry policy not to discuss any matters related to work for clients. We therefore cannot assist any further with the matters the Sunday-Star Times has raised with us.”

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