INM denies breaches of whistleblower laws
Independent News & Media (INM) has told the High Court it rejects suggestions by the corporate watchdog that it may have breached the Protected Disclosures Act in dealing with whistleblower complaints.
The country's largest media group took issue with criticism by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) of how disclosures made by its former chief executive Robert Pitt and chief financial officer Ryan Preston were handled.
In proceedings aimed at securing the appointment of inspectors to INM, the ODCE said it was concerned the company's affairs had been conducted in "an unlawful manner".
ODCE director Ian Drennan's concerns include the apparent discussion of how Mr Pitt might be sacked by a committee of INM's board set up to investigate his disclosure.
The topic was discussed despite the fact there are protections in the law, safeguarding whistleblowers from retaliation or termination of their employment.
Mr Drennan also voiced concerns that the identities of Mr Pitt and Mr Preston as whistleblowers were disclosed to people outside the company.
The two executives made disclosures to INM in late 2016 alleging they came under pressure from INM's then chairman Leslie Buckley to buy Newstalk at an inflated price.
The matter is one of a range of corporate governance issues the ODCE wants inspectors to investigate.
The payment of an inflated price would have benefited INM's largest shareholder Denis O'Brien, who owns Newstalk.
Mr Buckley was Mr O'Brien's nominee to the INM board.
But in an affidavit filed with the court, INM director Dr Len O'Hagan said: "The board does not believe there has been any breach of the Protected Disclosures Act."
Dr O'Hagan said the suggestion by Mr Drennan that the board was not sufficiently aware of its obligations under the Act was without any basis and there was no justification for the appointment of inspectors to investigate the issue.
In a court filing, Mr Drennan alleged that, having only met twice and not having invited Mr Pitt to attend before it, the INM board committee determined unanimously it should conclude there was no evidence of wrongdoing or of any issue or matter which raised a serious concern.
The ODCE director said independent reviewers hired by INM found there was a breach of Mr Pitt's right to fair procedures in the manner in which INM initially dealt with his protected disclosure, albeit that this breach was significantly remedied by the independent review process.
Mr Drennan claimed Mr O'Brien was made aware by Mr Buckley of the fact Mr Pitt had made a protected disclosure in advance of the INM board being told.
He also alleged Mr Buckley disclosed the identity of Mr Preston to someone at Island Capital, a company owned by Mr O'Brien, after Mr Preston also made a protected disclosure to INM.
Under Section 16 of the Protected Disclosures Act, any person to whom a protected disclosure is referred in the performance of their duties is prohibited from disclosing the whistleblower's identity to another person.
However, Dr O'Hagan said the independent reviewers hired by INM had found no breaches of the Act.
Dr O'Hagan also argued that Section 16 was not engaged as "Mr Buckley did not receive this information about Mr Pitt's disclosure in the course of the performance of his duties as chairman of INM, but rather as the person who had been accused of wrongdoing by Mr Pitt".