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Andrew Little appeared at the High Court in Wellington last week for a civil jury trial regarding comments he made about Scenic Hotel Group founder Earl Hagaman and his wife Lani Hagaman.
The Hagamans made a $101,000 donation to the National Party in 2014. Little’s comments linked this donation to the tender won by Scenic Hotel Group to manage the Matavai resort in Niue, which receives funding from the New Zealand Government.
The Hagamans’ lawyer, Richard Fowler QC, said that a media statement issued by Little in 2014 stated, “John Key must come clean on how a donor who gave more than $100,000 to his party during a tender process won a hotel management contract which led to a government-funded $7.5 million upgrade to a resort.”
He said that Little used phrases such as “today’s revelations stink to high heaven,” and “this looks like the latest in a line of questionable deals from John Key’s government which has seen New Zealand slide down the international corruption rankings.”
Before going into court, Little was reluctant to answer questions about the trial, stating “I’m not going to comment on the merits of the case or anything that might reflect on the merits of the case.”
He said that we would cover all costs that arise from the case, based on a “personal view about taking personal responsibility.”
The Hagamans had given Little a deadline in 2014 to apologise and retract his comments. Little refused at the time.
However, in February, Little offered an apology and $26,000 towards legal fees, which was rejected. A further offer in March of $100,000 — which would have been funded by taking out a loan against Little’s family home — was also rejected. “It was the most I could offer,” said Little. The Hagamans claim to have spent $215,000 in legal fees, which Little has described as “excessive.”
In Court, Little reported feeling “frustrated” by the Hagaman’s refusal to accept his offers. “As I’ve said, once the Auditor-General did her inquiry, I accepted her conclusion there was no impropriety and I was happy to give them a public apology.”
Earl Hagaman was unable to appear in court, as he was suffering from heart failure and a pre-leukemic blood disorder. He has also broken his pelvis after a fall.
“My husband has a matter of weeks to live and I’m sitting in Wellington fighting a battle I should not have to fight at all… and all it would have taken was an apology.”
Lani Hagaman said that she was pursuing the case in order to clear her husband’s reputation, saying that Earl deserved the right to “die with dignity.”
She denied that she was trying to bankrupt Little, arguing “my husband’s reputation is worth every penny.”
The trial was still ongoing at time of print.