Observers fear a sex scandal in New Zealand local politics could usher in a new era of sleaze
Auckland's newly re-elected mayor Len Brown has been outed for a two-year affair
His former mistress, 25 years his junior, says she now wants to apologize
She claims to have been manipulated by another lover who worked for Brown's rival
Months after sexting revelations dashed Anthony Weiner’s hopes of election in New York, a mayor on the other side of the world is battling for political survival following a lurid sex scandal that has electrified the usually sleepy world of local politics.
The crisis engulfing Len Brown, the recently re-elected mayor of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, involves sex in the mayoral chambers, a former mistress who says she also shared a bed with an adviser to his rival, intrigue as to whether the mayor was victim of a political smear campaign, and a hunt for the sender of a mystery text message that triggered the revelations.
The scandal, broken by a blogger and virtually unprecedented in New Zealand politics in its sleaziness, has raised fears it could herald a grubby new era in which the sex lives of politicians, traditionally seen as beyond the purview of the media, become fair game.
“In the past, it was the case that sexuality and what politicians did in their own private lives was deemed to be non-political, and not generally reported upon,” said Bryce Edwards, political scientist at the University of Otago. “That has definitely changed. I think this story will shift the goalposts more than any other to give the green light to political insiders to think you can air the dirty laundry of politicians.”
The scandal has left Brown, a 57-year-old married father-of-three, publicly humiliated, facing a council inquiry as to whether he breached codes of conduct, and weathering mounting calls for him to resign the mayoralty to which he was re-elected only days before the scandal broke.
For her part, the former mistress who exposed his infidelity – Bevan Chuang, who sat on a council advisory panel and was an unsuccessful local board candidate at the recent elections – says she now regrets her actions in outing the center-left mayor, and has turned on those she claims pressured her into doing so.
Neither Brown and Chuang responded to repeated requests from CNN for comment. However, in a post on her Facebook page, the 32 year old fired shots at the blogger who published her account, and at Luigi Wewege, an adviser to Brown’s main rival for the mayoralty, with whom she says she also had an intimate relationship. “I have been foolish, but I feel used, abused and manipulated by people I thought were friends who have been taking snippets of what I have said to advance their own political agendas and muck-raking,” she wrote.
While the Facebook post has been taken down, Chuang expressed similar sentiments in an interview she gave to the New Zealand Herald newspaper. Wewege, for his part, has denied that he was romantically involved with Chuang.
“Nobody’s come out of this with any credit,” said Dick Quax, an Auckland city councilor who is a long-time rival of Brown’s. “But the person who has come out with the least is the mayor.”
The scandal broke Tuesday when right-leaning political blog Whale Oil, run by Cameron Slater, published an anonymous account of a woman who said she had had a two-year affair with the mayor after he had pursued her following a council function.
Newspapers followed the story, soon identifying Chuang as the woman in the account, which included salacious claims that the pair had liaisons on council time and council premises, including once being caught in flagrante by a security guard in the town hall. Slater subsequently confirmed that Chuang was the woman in the story.
Brown appeared on the television show Campbell Live to confirm he had had an affair, requesting privacy to resolve issues with his family. He said he had no intention to resign, and that the exposure of the affair reflected a “clear will or determination to try and force a resignation, to try and in effect destroy me.”
Pressure mounted further on the mayor after the Herald reported – and the mayor’s office later confirmed – that Brown had written a reference that helped secure his lover a job at the city art gallery, a council subsidiary. The council then announced that it was opening an inquiry into the matter to determine whether Brown used council funds in the relationship and whether any aspect of his behavior contravened the council’s code of ethics.
Brown had stated in his Campbell Live interview that no inappropriate spending of council funds took place.
But the story took a turn after Chuang, having denied her revelations were politically motivated, told the Herald that she had been pressured into speaking to the blogger by Wewege, with whom she said she had had an intimate relationship.
Saying her world had begun “falling apart” after she missed out on a board seat in the elections, she told the newspaper she regretted going public and now wanted to apologize to the mayor. The newspaper published social media exchanges provided by Chuang that appeared to back up her claims of a relationship between her and Wewege, and of his encouragement for her to gather evidence on Brown. CNN was unable to independently confirm the authenticity of those exchanges.
Wewege had been an advisor to John Palino, the center-right mayoral candidate who had polled second in the election; John Slater, father of blogger Cameron, had also been a key adviser to his campaign.
Wewege denied to the New Zealand Herald that he had been in a relationship with Chuang, while Palino denied any previous knowledge of a relationship between his staffer and Chuang to the newspaper. Neither Wewege nor Palino responded to CNN’s requests for comment.
Speaking to CNN, the blogger Cameron Slater said he was not part of an organized center-right push to smear the mayor, and denied exploiting his source.
The story had only come about after he was approached by Wewege and Chuang with texts that they said would embarrass the mayor.
He said Chuang initially had cold feet about going through with the article, but decided to proceed after receiving a text message from an anonymous number, warning her not to proceed. The identity of the sender is now a key question at the heart of the affair. “Whoever sent that text message brought the whole thing to a head,” he said.
Slater said he had chosen to proceed with the story as the issues of ethics, integrity and potential abuse of power it raised made it a “clear public interest issue.”
“It’s not about presenting the lurid details of an affair,” he said. “You’ve got the second most powerful politician in NZ… controlling the largest city, billions of dollars in ratepayers’ money and answerable to no one except the public.”
He was happy if blogging about the private lives of politicians helped bring about greater integrity, he said.
“In the UK these things are reported as a matter of course. It happens in Australia and the U.S. as well – look at the Weiner case. New Zealand for too long has sat in a cozy arrangement because the politicians and the media are too close. There has been a mutually assured destruction mentality that doesn’t provide well for democracy.”
He believed the traditional media would have broken the story too if it had the scoop. “Everyone’s being sanctimonious and pointing the finger at this nasty blogger who has breached all these protocols. Well you know what? Those protocols don’t actually exist. There’s no rules,” he said. “The evidence they would have done it, is that the next day the largest daily in the country splashed five pages on this scandal.”
Academic Bryce Edwards said it was hard to assess whether the story was a case of legitimate “public interest or just something the public have an interest in.” “It’s pretty hard to see which category it falls into. At the start it did seem more prurient, but each revelation seems to shift the story more into the political sphere.”
Local politics was traditionally viewed as low-stakes and boring, but the 2010 amalgamation of Auckland’s seven existing city and district councils into one “super city” had given the new “super mayor” unprecedented powers that made him a more attractive scalp for his enemies.
With unscientific polls in New Zealand media roughly split between those who believed the mayor should stay and those who said he should go, it was hard to call what the politician’s fate would be.
“At this stage it’s looking more likely than not that he’s going to have to do something – either resign or put himself up for re-election,” he said.