And now the case of the civil servant who got fired (in part) for being too conscientious.

The case, which occupied four days of an Appeal hearing before the Wellington Employment Court is long and complex.

It was brought by a Ministry of Primary Industries employee contesting his dismissal from the Ministry.

But it throws a fascinating light on the public service bureaucracy and how hierarchical it is and how people are very conscious of their place in the pecking order.

At the heart of the whole affair is Mr Kunar Goel who worked for the Ministry of Primary Industries as a Ministerial Coordinator in the Ministerial and Official   Correspondence Team. 

 His   role involved   coordinating responses   to incoming Ministerial and official correspondence. 

It  included  responsibility  for formatting  and  proof-reading  MPI  responses  to  formal  requests  for  information under the Official Information Act. 

In 13 December 2012, Mr Goel was suspended from his employment; principally for failing to follow what MPI claimed was a lawful and reasonable instruction regarding a particular item of correspondence. 

Here the story takes a few twists and turns.

Although he had been a top performing student when he did his degree in Business Studies at Massey University, Mr Goel was firmly at the bottom of the MPI food chain and had a complex reporting line up to the Ministry’s top management.

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His immediate report was to Mr Craig Spanhake, Team Leader Ministerial.   

Mr    Spanhake    reported to Mr Jeff Stewart, Manager Ministerial and Business Support, who had an overview of the Ministerial team. 

In turn, Mr Stewart reported to Mr Dan Bolger, the Deputy Director-General  at  MPI responsible  for  managing  the  branch  that  included  the Ministerial  team  that  Mr  Goel  was  a  part  of. 

These people all play significant roles in the events that led to Mr Goel’s dismissal.

In December 2012 MPI received a formal request from a senior university lecturer for information under the Official Information Act related to Maui dolphins.

In his judgement, the Wellington Employment Court judge, Anthony Ford, said: “The request related to what was described as a “contentious subject” and Mr Stewart said that it had generated a fair amount of public comment at the time. 

“After briefing the Minister’s Office and receiving the Minister’s approval, MPI proposed to refuse the request for information on the basis that it was “frivolous or vexatious”. 

“MPI had apparently received numerous requests for similar information from the same lecturer.”

 MPI’s response refusing the request for information was to be sent out in the name of Mr Scott Gallagher, a Deputy Director-General.  

MPI had seven Deputy Director-Generals at the time – each was in charge of a different branch of the organisation.

The template for the signature block for official correspondence included  the  name  of  the  branch  but  the  evidence  was  that  the  seven  Deputy Director-Generals had a discretion as to how they wanted to sign off on official correspondence. 

Mr Gallagher’s Executive Assistant, Ms Anna Gordon, explained to the Court that Mr Gallagher was quite particular about how his name was to be signed off on correspondence.  She said that his preference was to sign off as: “Yours sincerely, Scott Gallagher, Deputy Director-General”.

The letter ended up declining the lecturer’s request ended up with Mr Goel for proof reading and formatting and he added the signature: “: “Scott Gallagher, Deputy Director-General, Resource Management and Programmes” to it.

Mr Gallagher’s PA returned the letter to Mr Goel and asked him to change the signature to the style demanded by Mr Gallagher.

He refused.

She told the Court that Mr Goel “then started getting quite vocal about the fact that there is a template and there is a process and ‘Scott is not above the process’ and he wasn’t going to change it.”

Ms Ford said: “I had an understanding that all the other Ministerial Co-ordinators were sort of along the lines of you know, ‘Scott’s the hierarchy’ and if he wanted something the way he wanted it, then they pretty much just did it. 

“So I kind of just said to Kunal ‘I understand but you know, this is what Scott wants’.  

“To which he then started getting louder and started saying things like ‘Scott is not God’ or ‘he’s not Jesus’ or something along those lines.” 

Mr Stewart, who was nearby, walked over Mr Goel and told Ms Gordon that he would sort the matter out.

 He told her not to stand around and that he would explain to Mr Goel what she and Mr Gallagher needed to be done.  

He then told Mr Goel that it was Mr Gallagher’s  preference  to  sign  off  the  letter  that  way  and  he  gave  Kunal  a directive to do what he had been asked but Mr Goel was still “belligerent and argumentative.”,

Mr Stewart told the Court that about 10 minutes later Mr Goel took the letter over to Mr Stewart’s desk and continued to argue that he should not have to make the change to the signature block.

“He made remarks like it was ‘wrong and “not honest’, “said Mr Stewart.

  They decided to suspend Mr Goel on pay pending an investigation the following week into an allegation of serious misconduct.  

Mr Goel objected to the outcome of the investigation because it didn’t address his concerns about the process.

After considering Mr Goel’s response, Mr Bolger decided to redo the investigation.

Terms of reference were drafted and Mr Bolger appointed Mr Todd Firman, a Human Resources Advisor with the Ministry of Primary Industries as the new investigator.

The second investigation was careful and thorough with a whole series of interviews being conducted.

Clearly the affair was beginning to assume Brobdingnagian proportions given that the matter had started with a refusal by a junior clerk to agree to an unorthodox signature on a letter.

The investigator, Todd Firman, was obviously worried about his so he told the Court that  he could  understand how, for someone looking at this from the outside, it looked  like a pretty serious finding over something pretty minor – a refusal to change a signature block in a letter.

“In order to understand it in context you have to appreciate a couple of things,” he said.

“The first thing to appreciate is the nature of the fundamental role played by this part of the organisation, and the absolute need to follow instructions.

“Here you had an employee acting belligerently in response to request to do something pretty simple.”

Mr Firman said that Mr Goel repeatedly told him that he didn’t think it was appropriate for him to make the change.

“I don’t think he really acknowledged the key point,” said Mr Firman.

“His boss was telling him – reasonably – to make the change … to the point of directing Kunal to do it – but Kunal kept arguing the point. He just wouldn’t do what Jeff had asked him to do.” 

And so Mr Firman recommended that he be fired. 

But in his judgement – which actually upheld the firing — the Judge said that in answer to questions from the Court Mr Goel’s manager, Mr Spanhake, accepted that the branch title should have been included in the signature block of the response to the Official Information Act request and he also accepted that Mr Goel was  entitled  to  ask  the  reason  why  they  wanted  it  removed  on  this  occasion.

The eventual Court judgement said that Mr Spanhake drew the line, at the point when Mr Stewart became involved in the matter. 

“ He told the Court that Mr Goel would have known that, in his (Mr Spanhake’s) absence, Mr Stewart was the boss and once he received instructions from  Mr  Stewart  to  change  the  signature  block  on  the  letter  then  it  became  a different ball-game and Mr Goel should have obeyed that direction,” the Judge said.

But not only did Mr Goel lose his job he is now also subject to deportation by Immigration New Zealand.

And though the Judge upheld the Ministry’s decision to fire him he did extend some sympathy over his imminent deportation.

Mr Goel acted for himself in the Court hearing and in his closing oral submissions he made comments on his deportation.

“He spoke, for example, about the unfairness of being deported from a country he loves as a result of losing his job for reasons which did not involve any element of incompetence or dishonesty,” the Judge said.

“There is a certain amount of truth in that submission. 

“In one respect, it could be argued that he lost his job through being too diligent and conscientious.”