Covid campaign boss investigated over several alleged conflicts of interest
Colleagues of a former civil servant at the centre of a conflict of interest investigation say their concerns about her side deals with an agency supplier were repeatedly ignored by managers.
One was so concerned about the employee's potential conflicts of interest and her involvement in the 'That's Us' vaccination campaign, they wrote an open letter and left it lying around the office.
Their concerns revolve around Debra Jensen, who was the general manager of communications, digital and marketing at Te Hiringa Hauora/Health Promotion Agency (THH).
An RNZ investigation has revealed that while in that role, she led a $1.59m social media campaign designed to increase Covid-19 vaccination rates among young Māori which did most of its work after 87% of the target audience had already had a first dose of the vaccine.
READ MORE ON THIS STORY:
* The $1.59m Covid vaccination campaign that happened after almost everyone was vaccinated
Now RNZ can reveal Jensen co-signed multi-million dollar contracts awarded to an advertising agency that her own company also had contracts with.
In May, THH commissioned Wellington lawyer Joss Opie to investigate Jensen's "potential, perceived or actual conflicts of interest" while employed at the agency.
Te Hiringa Hauora became part of Health NZ in July. The investigation is now complete, but citing privacy, Health NZ has refused to release the findings.
Jensen resigned from Te Whatu Ora on December 2.
Allegations of conflicts of interest were made against Jensen in relation to the 'That's Us' project, including that Jensen's nephew and his partner - both university students at the time - were paid thousands of dollars a week to work on the campaign while they were living with Jensen.
Jensen has refused to say whether she signed conflict of interest forms in regards to her relationship with the couple.
"The conflict of interest was managed through the delegation of sensitive arrangements i.e. contract and procurement processes etc being managed by other managers and staff," she said in a statement.
Further allegations against Jensen were raised by colleagues as far back as March this year.
Jensen co-owns Native Voice, a consultancy firm, with her partner Jason Ake. Native Voice has a contract with advertising agency VMLY&R to work on Census 2023.
VMLY&R is a regular supplier to THH.
The Census pitch - at which Jensen and Ake were present - was made in April 2021 and awarded in August that year.
In July 2021, Jensen was among five senior THH executives to sign off two contracts awarded to VMLY&R totalling $1.23m.
On September 20, she also co-signed a recommendation to contract VMLY&R for a $780,000 Hepatitis C campaign.
Ten days later, THH chief executive Tane Cassidy signed a conflict of interest declaration regarding Jensen's Census work.
It stated: "The GM, Communications, Digital and Marketing will withdraw from any work related to VMLY&R, delegating day to day management of any work to relevant managers across her teams.
"The GM, Communications, Digital and Marketing will maintain active management and raise any further risks associated with this conflict where necessary."
Jensen said her conflict of interest as managing director for Native Voice was "declared and managed as per the mitigations outlined in the form."
"The contracts you refer to, were co-signed by other execs, not solely by me, and this is standard practice at Te Hiringa Hauora. It doesn't mean I was involved in the selection of that agency for instance. I was not involved in any of the work related to Hep C - it was delegated to other Managers and staff from my teams and managed accordingly."
Te Whatu Ora has refused to release any signed conflict of interest forms, or the date they were signed.
Then, in April this year, Native Voice itself was awarded a $4.8m Ministry of Health contract alongside VMLY&R and Bright Sunday to run a quit smoking campaign - a contract previously held by THH.
Following a complaint, the Ministry of Health paused the quit smoking contract briefly in May while it conducted an investigation into the procurement process in light of Jensen's potential conflicts of interest, and the inclusion of a THH staff member on the selection panel.
The investigation, carried out by Audit New Zealand, found that while some areas of the procurement process could have been more "robust or documented better, nothing has come to our attention to indicate the process is fundamentally flawed."
The auditor also noted they were "not aware of any rule or similar that precludes a public sector employee concurrently being a director of a private sector company that holds a contract with another public entity."
"That said, there may be a condition of 's then or future employment agreement and related codes of conduct and other rules or guidance which preclude such."
Former colleagues told RNZ they repeatedly raised concerns with senior managers about Jensen's potential conflicts of interest with Native Voice and her close links to some of the rangatahi recruited to work on the vaccination campaign.
They also had concerns that two paid interns recruited to the marketing team in November 2021 had close links to Jensen. One was her son's girlfriend. The other, a daughter of an acquaintance.
Attempts to raise these concerns with managers were fruitless, they said.
"We were told it was 'just the new Māori way of doing things'. We were made to feel like we were racist if we raised concerns," said one, who tried to raise it with managers.
"This made Pākehā staff feel really uncomfortable asking questions."
None of Jensen's former colleagues wanted to be identified because they currently worked for other government agencies.
Jensen said she was not involved in the recruitment of the interns and the conflict of interest relating to her son's girlfriend "was managed through the delegation of sensitive arrangements i.e. contract and procurement processes etc being managed by other managers and staff."
She had never met the other intern prior to her working at THH.
One THH staff member was so concerned about Jensen's involvement in Native Voice and the 'That's Us' campaign they wrote an open letter and left copies of it lying around the office.
It alleged Jensen was "impossible to get hold of" because she was working full time at Native Voice despite her job at THH being 40 hours a week.
"Staff at all levels have tried to escalate this through all the appropriate channels. No action has been taken," the letter said.
Jensen denied being unavailable.
"Staff did not raise any concerns with me either directly nor through their managers. As GM I was responsible for the delivery of Comms, Marketing and Digital performance measures for the SPE and I met those deliverables."
The employee who wrote the open letter said they reported their concerns to human resources and a senior executive in March. "They said they did not know about the situation and were very alarmed. They wrote it all down. We were relieved that it was on record and that something was to be done."
Their complaint does not appear to be on record, however.
THH became part of Health NZ in July.
Health NZ said it had only received one complaint about Jensen's potential conflicts of interest in May.
Days after this complaint was made, senior executives at THH rushed to find signed conflict of interest forms for Jensen, according to documents seen by RNZ.
They found two - both were unsigned by Jensen.
The first declared her personal affiliation to Ake who was also involved in 'That's Us' as the chair of the Iwi Communications Collective. The second declared the couple's consultancy firm, Native Voice, had a contract with VMLY&R to work on Census 2023.
Health NZ declined to be interviewed and issued a written statement attributed to an unnamed individual.
The statement did not answer RNZ's questions about why Jensen, despite her personal contracts with VMLY&R, continued to sign off THH's contracts with the advertising agency.
It also did not say what recruitment processes were followed for the two interns.
National's health spokesman Shane Reti said the investigation into potential conflicts of interest involving Jensen should be released.
"Did a key person involved in the ['That's Us'] program and involved with Te Hiringa Hauora have a serious and significant conflict of interest? It's a simple question to answer. Were the conflict of interest forms mutually signed? When were they signed, and what conflict of interest was declared?
"But just declaring a conflict of interest doesn't manage it. And so, you then have to look at how was it managed?
"The minister needs to release the report. He needs to convincingly address that conflict of interest."
Jensen resigned from Te Whatu Ora on 2 December.
Te Whatu Ora's statement acknowledged the concerns that have been raised.
"The alleged conflicts of interest have been investigated as part of an employment process," it said.
"As such, and in keeping with our legal obligations as an employer, our position remains that such matters are confidential between Te Whatu Ora [Health NZ] and its employees. This obligation remains even after an individual is no longer an employee and/or the employment process has ended."