Winston Peters was 'indignant and defensive' when told of Ministry of Social Development error, court hears

The Ministry of Social Development has today laid bare how it says Winston Peters' years of superannuation over-payments were uncovered and what it did once it found out.

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The Acting Prime Minister has taken two National MPs to court over the leaking of his superannuation details. Source: 1 NEWS

Mr Peters is seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages in the High Court at Auckland claiming his privacy was breached mere weeks before the 2017 election.

Senior National MPs Anne Tolley and Paula Bennett, the Ministry of Social Development, its former chief Brendan Boyle and State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes are all named in his civil case.

The court was today told a service centre manager "picked up something wasn't quite right" when Winston Peters' partner Jan Trotman applied for her own superannuation.

Acting Regional Manager Meredith Nugent told the court Ms Trotman noted she was in a defacto relationship with Mr Peters, but that was not something listed on Mr Peters' pension form handed over years earlier.

Ms Nugent outlined how the ministry "removed layers of people: from the case" to "narrow who would know about it". 

"I remember from the outset we agreed we needed to do everything to investigate as we would with any member of the public, just with added sensitivity because of Mr Peters' profile," she said in court.

The ministry also moved to limit emails and steer communications to phone calls, with calls being made from a private room.

That was because the ministry was "aware of the risk" of emails, and ministry staff also made sure things were not printed to any unintended printers.

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The Acting PM claims two senior National MPs tried to undermine him before the last election. Source: 1 NEWS

Ms Nugent told court the ministry also moved to secure Mr Peters' records to limit who could access them.

She said it was not unusual for cases involving high profile people to be reported straight to her, because they could have a platform or motivation to criticise MSD if they did not like how things were handled.

Ms Nugent said Mr Peters did not like her initial phone call to him on July 25, 2017 to say something was wrong, and that his tone was "very unhappy".

"He was indignant and defensive and said it was a ministry error and the clear undertone was 'how dare we contact him about such a thing'," she said.

"He was absolutely adamant the ministry had made a mistake here," she said.

Winston Peters has made clear in his evidence this week he believes a clerical error at MSD led to his over-payments.

But MSD today laid the blame squarely on Mr Peters and "filling out the form incorrectly".

"It was clear the error was his and the ministry had not made an error," Ms Nugent said.

"Mr Peters had not declared his relationship on his application."

Ms Nugent said she stands by her view formed during her interview of Mr Peters that he wrongly filled out the form and he had no intention to defraud MSD.

She told court that at one point in the investigation Mr Peters could not remember where he went to hand over his superannuation form in 2010, and he had to be reminded where it was.

She said in another phone call Winston Peters "nearly bit my head off because he thought I was a media person and he'd forgotten my name".

"Once I clarified who I was he was far more pleasant," she said.

Ms Nugent said her memory of events was clear because it was unusual to be dealing with someone as high profile as Mr Peters.

She also says frontline staff in the office Mr Peters handed his application form in "have a very clear memory" he was alone.

Mr Peters though says those staff are mistaken, and Ms Trotman has also given evidence to say she was there.

He said yesterday he believed some people were "covering their butts" in his case.

Ms Nugent said she stands by her view formed during her interview of Mr Peters that he wrongly filled out the form and he had no intention to defraud MSD.

Third journalist called to court

A third journalist has been called to Winston Peters' court case and refused to reveal details that could identity who let her know about the MP's years of superannuation over-payments.

Newshub's Jenna Lynch was called to the High Court in Auckland this morning.

She confirmed she received an anonymous call with the tip-off on August 23, 2017.

When asked by Winston Peters' lawyer Brian Henry if the caller was male or female, Ms Lynch said she was not willing to give that information.

She said she felt it was clear the caller did not want their identity known.

Melanie Reid, a journalist at Newsroom, and NZME's Barry Soper gave evidence yesterday.

Mr Soper said his phone call came from a number he knew, but said he would not reveal the source.

Ms Reid said she could not recall the details given to her in her phone call.

Former ministers start their defence

Bruce Gray QC, the lawyer for former ministers Anne Tolley and Paula Bennett, opened his side of the case in court today.

He said Mr Peters' case had allegations it was government practise for departmental officials to give "salacious information" to ministers for nothing other than political purposes.

"Well the plaintiff is pitching its claim very high sir," Mr Gray told Justice Venning.

"We say an allegation of that type on the evidence that you've seen so far and will hear is wholly unwarranted and is inappropriate," he told the judge.

Mr Gray inferred his arguments will involve hearing more details about the wording of the Cabinet Manual, which is the rulebook for government ministers.

Anne Tolley has been in the public gallery for much of today.

She and Paula Bennett are due to give evidence tomorrow.