New Zealand leader faces questions over alleged secret tapes

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Three months away from an election, New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English is facing awkward questions about how he handled a lawmaker who is accused of making secret recordings and then lying about what he did.

English on Tuesday released a statement he made to police last year, saying that lawmaker Todd Barclay told him he left a recording device running in his district office and captured criticism from a staffer.

Under New Zealand law, it is illegal to secretly record other people's conversations. Police investigated Barclay, but the conservative lawmaker refused an interview and police said they closed the case due to insufficient evidence.

Barclay told reporters early Tuesday that he was aware of the allegations and "totally refute them," a statement that echoed earlier denials.

But after English released his police statement, Barclay said he'd read it and accepted it.

"I'm sorry if any of the answers I gave this morning were misleading," Barclay said during a hastily arranged news conference.

He said that it was a stressful time during a difficult employment dispute, but that he couldn't comment further due to legal reasons. He left without answering any questions.

So far, Barclay hasn't faced any political sanctions. English was asked by reporters why he hadn't censured the lawmaker.

"I told the police. The police conducted an investigation," English said. "As far as I was concerned, that was the end of the matter. Now it's a matter for Todd around the statements he might have made."

English released his police statement after an investigation by the Newsroom website revealed he sent texts that formed part of the police investigation.

In those texts, English said Barclay had recorded staffer Glenys Dickson. He said that after Dickson quit, she'd been given a settlement that was larger than normal "because of the privacy breach," and that part of it had been paid for from the prime minister's budget. "Everyone unhappy," English wrote in one text, according to Newsroom.

English has declined to say how much Dickson was paid.

Opposition leader Andrew Little said that English's previous comments about the case were dismissive, and that he seemed to be covering things up to protect Barclay.

"All that time he was, in fact, donkey deep in this scandal," Little said in a statement.

Recent opinion polls indicate that English's National Party remains the most popular party and English the preferred prime minister ahead of September's nationwide elections. Under New Zealand's proportional voting system, larger parties typically form alliances with smaller parties to govern.