New Zealand’s opposition party has stood down MP Sam Uffindell and launched an investigation after backing him for two days, following fresh allegations of bullying behavior during his university years, which he denies.
The move comes after a woman who lived with Uffindell and three other University of Otago flatmates in 2003 alleged in an interview with broadcaster RNZ released on Tuesday that Uffindell was an aggressive “verbal bully” who could become physically intimidating, and would trash the house after “excessive” alcohol and drug use.
“He was smashing on my door and yelling obscenities and basically telling me to get out – ‘hit the road, fatty’,” the woman, who has kept her identity private, said. “I ended up climbing out of my bedroom window and ran to a friend’s house to stay the night. I feared for my safety. I was scared.”
National party leader Chris Luxon said in a statement: “This evening my office became aware of very concerning accusations made to RNZ about behavior shown by Mr Uffindell toward a female flatmate in 2003 while at university.
“Mr Uffindell disputes the allegations and in the interests of natural justice, an independent investigation will now be undertaken to determine the facts. While this process is under way, Mr Uffindell will be stood down from the caucus.
The investigation, led by a QC, is expected to take two weeks, and its terms of reference have yet to be confirmed.
Uffindell denied the allegations, saying in a statement that “flatmates fell out” and the incident “simply did not happen”. “When I was a student at Otago I enjoyed a student lifestyle, which included drinking and, at times, smoking marijuana. While in second year a number of flatmates fell out – and two of the flatmates left midway through the year,” he said.
“I reject any accusation that I engaged in behavior that was intimidatory or bullying. This simply did not happen.”
Uffindell is the National party’s newest MP, winning a June by-election for the safe seat of Tauranga.
The new allegations come on the back of reporting by news outlet Stuff on Monday which alleged that in 1999, Uffindell – then 16 – beat up a 13-year-old as part of a group attack at the prestigious Auckland’s Kings College that left the victim bruised and experiencing significant trauma. He was asked to leave the school following the attack.
After 22 years, Uffindell apologized to his victim last year after a stint overseas, telling Stuff his remorse was unlinked to his political ambitions. The victim told Stuff he accepted the apology at the time but was rocked to see Uffindell stand for politics months later.
On Tuesday morning, Uffindell told media that he had apologized to other people for his behavior at school. “I’m not proud at all,” he said. “I was effectively a bully. I was a mean person. There will be other people at high school that I have hurt.”
I have reported party bosses of the 1999 incident in the lead-up to the preselection but it was not made public.
The saga is a significant problem for Luxon and his party, which has been beleaguered by a questionable track record of candidate selection.
On Tuesday, Luxon said Uffindell was “a good candidate and is a high integrity person and he’s got a good character”.
On Wednesday, his tone had changed. Speaking to RNZ, Luxon called the new allegations “very concerning and very serious” but defended his earlier assessment of him. “The determination was look, a 38-year-old man is different from a 16-year-old bully. He genuinely felt… he had reformed and changed,” he said.
Luxon noted that Uffindell had previously declared the King’s College bullying incident “but that doesn’t preclude the fact that we are a party of law and order”.
Uffindell also faces accusations of hypocrisy. He campaigned on law and order issues, saying in his maiden speech that Tauranga was battling a “growing culture of lawlessness, lack of accountability, a sense of impunity, and significant underlying generational social problems”.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism