Little’s reputation on the line as the man he allegedly defamed is dying

Andrew Little must feel very sick about now.

He’s about to start the second day of his defamation trial, where the Hagamans are alleging that Andrew Little defamed them by essentially accusing them of corruption.

I am very interested in this case, firstly because Andrew Little elected a trial by jury and also because he is trying on the defence of a qualified privilege.

A defamation trial against Labour leader Andrew Little is about to begin in the Wellington High Court.

The action relates to comments Little made about a management contract Earl Hagaman’s company, Scenic Hotel, was awarded for Matavai Resort on Niue and a donation to the National Party during the 2014 campaign.

Earl and Lani Hagaman have sued Little for defamation and Lani Hagaman will begin her evidence today. ?

The jury trial is set down until Friday and witnesses include Lani Hagaman, daughter, Toya, and National Party President Peter Goodfellow.

Others include Scenic Hotel managing director Brendan Taylor and Terry Ngan, who was at hotel consultancy firm Horwarth which managed the contract tender at the time will also give evidence.

At the time of the comments last year, the Hagamans gave Little a deadline to retract his comments and apologise, but Little refused saying it was part of his role to hold the Government to account.

Last week, Little did offer a full apology but Lani Hagaman said it was too late and the court action would proceed.

The Auditor-General looked into the award of the contract at the time and found there was nothing unusual in the process used to award the contract or in the decision to invest public funds in an upgrade of the hotel afterwards.

However, she said aspects of the arrangement and the donation were outside the jurisdiction of her office. At the time Foreign Minister Murray McCully said the claims were ”baseless”.

But Andrew Little went large on the claims…and now he is in court. Win or lose he will lose because of?the horrendous costs associated with defending oneself against these claims.

Andrew Little is likely to lose in the public approval stakes though, because it has been revealed that Earl Hagaman is very sick and likely to die in a matter of weeks.

Lani Hagaman began her evidence today, saying Earl Hagaman was not at court because he was critically ill and doctors believed he only had weeks to live.

Lani Hagaman now had power of attorney along with the family’s lawyer.

She had decided to continue to pursue the defamation suit to clear his name.

“We reached the decision Earl’s name needs to be totally cleared from any [claim] of corruption and Earl needs to be able to die with dignity.”

Andrew Little’s problems just got worse, perception wise. He now stands accused of defaming a dying man…and when he loses, he will have been sued by a dead man.

The size of Little’s problems are huge:

Hoteliers Earl and Lani Hagaman are seeking up to $2 million in damages from Labour leader Andrew Little in a defamation suit against him.

The trial started today at the High Court in Wellington.

The Hagamans’ lawyer Richard Fowler said Earl and Lani Hagaman claimed Little had repeatedly defamed them in a press release and six media interviews he did last year about a $100,000 donation from the Hagamans to the National Party in 2014 and a contract awarded to their hotel chain, Scenic Hotel, to manage the Matavai resort in Niue.

Fowler said the Hagamans claim was that the comments by Little amounted to an “inference of corruption”.

The lawyer pointed to six examples, a press release and five media interviews, in which Little had questioned whether there was a link between the donation and the Matavai contract which was awarded to Scenic Hotel soon afterward.

He also queried a $7.5 million Government aid fund to upgrade the resort at a later date, money Fowler said went to the trust which owned the hotel rather than Scenic Hotel.

Fowler said Little’s comments included phrases about the timing: “it looks murky from the outside, it looks shady,” “stink to high heaven,” “there’s just something about this whole deal that really stinks” and reference to National Party’s “dodgy deals” such as an agrihub in Saudi Arabia.

“The Hagamans say the fundamental theme is one of corruption,” Fowler said.

The Hagamans were seeking an optimum award of $500,000 each for comments made in a press release by Little soon after a RNZ news story reported on the timing of the donation and the awarding of the Matavai contract.

The couple is also seeking $100,000 each for separate comments made in each of five interviews broadcast after that, a total of $2 million, with a further lower amount of exemplary damages.

I’ll be interested to see if his qualified privilege defence stands. I suspect not. I also wonder if the taxpayer might be on the hook for his legal expenses, which I know from bitter experience will be eye watering.

I am glad to see a politician choosing trial by jury though, he has the courage of his convictions and defamation is about public perception in any case. Imagine if he was a supporter of BCIR, had made public statements about having the public decide over who was telling the truth and then quietly applying to the court for a judge alone trial.

In any case, Andrew Little, the Labour party, or both are going to be substantially out of pocket heading into the election campaign.

The only person who wins out of this is Jacindarella…ironically her father is on the board that made the decision to award the contract in the first place.

 

-NZ Herald.

 

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