Wellington: Two women in New Zealand have come forward to claim they were sexually manipulated and intimidated by the National party’s former chief whip during extramarital affairs. Two more have alleged they were bullied, abused and threatened, as a political spat in the main opposition party evolved into the first major MeToo moment in the country’s political circles.
The former front bench MP turned independent, Jami-Lee Ross, is alleged to have made threats and used sex as a “brutal” weapon to gain information on his political rivals, according to one of the women who spoke anonymously to news website Newsroom as part of a special investigation. The politician, who is married with children, was said to have had a total of five affairs.
The women were inspired to go public by a media conference held by Ross on Tuesday in which he said four sexual harassment claims against him were part of a targeted smear campaign to push him out of the party, according to Newsroom investigative reporter Melanie Reid, who has been working on the story for a year.
“When you have Jami-Lee Ross talking often as he has in the last few days about moral compass and being comfortable with his behaviour, it was certainly a tipping point for the women I’ve spoken to,” Reid told the AM show.
Two of the women interviewed by Newsroom described Ross as “grooming” them with sex and romantic attention. The two sexual relationships were consensual. All four described being verbally abused by the politician, and one woman claimed Ross was controlling and dominating which she described as “a living hell”.
“When I left, I saw him for what he was and only then could I fully protect myself,” the woman told Newsroom.
Another described Ross as a narcissist who lied with impunity. “This man is a narcissist. He absolutely turns on people when he doesn’t get his own way. He is a master manipulator and a deceitful liar who has no problem looking somebody in the eye and outright lying.”
“I watched as Jami-Lee Ross looked reporters in the eye and told the nation that he, ‘to the best of his knowledge, had never harassed a woman’,” the woman said. “He was calm. He was collected.”
Another woman described herself as being “nearly destroyed” by Ross’s alleged intimidation and bullying tactics, saying the career politician allegedly threatened to bring her family and job into disrepute.
Ross told media earlier this week that he had never harassed a woman during his parliamentary career and had been brought up by his mother and grandmother to respect women.
He has not responded to requests by Newsroom, the Guardian and other local media for comment on the allegations, but has previously said he plans to release further communications with Simon Bridges, the leader of the opposition National party, including telephone conversations and text messages between the formerly close colleagues.
The claims form part of an acidic dispute between Ross and Bridges over leaked travel expenses. The row has spiralled into accusations by Ross that Bridges tried to conceal NZ$100,000 in party donations and fabricated four sexual harassment claims against him in a plot to manoeuvre him out of the party. Bridges has strenuously denied all the claims.
On Wednesday, Ross made a complaint to Wellington police regarding the alleged donation fraud, and released a six-minute phone recording of a May telephone conversation with Bridges in which the two discussed the NZ$100,000 (Dh241,250) donation from a wealthy Chinese businessman, as well as the racial profile of possible candidates that might please the donor, including which MPs could be let go and replaced with “two Chinese”.
Political commentators say the infighting in the National party is the worst in New Zealand’s political history, and the political longevity of both Ross and Bridges looks unlikely.
Both Bridges and his deputy Paula Bennett said they first became aware of the allegations against Ross a number of weeks ago, and they took the allegations to him and suggested he take a leave of absence.
Ross responded that if the allegations against him continued, the whole of parliament could be implicated. “If they want to start lifting the bedsheets on everyone that works in that building, you guys [media] and MPs, then I think there’ll be a lot of people concerned — even those that are throwing allegations now,” Ross said.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2018