Te Kohanga Reo National Trust board deputy chair Toni Waho says the organisation is "not happy" about alleged inappropriate spending by one of its employees.
The trust, which receives $9 million a year in taxpayer funding, promotes the use of Maori language in early childhood. But last night Maori Television's Native Affairs show claimed Lynda Tawhiwhirangi, general manager of trust subsidiary Te Pataka Ohanga, had spent trust money on items such as jewellery, handbags and a Trelise Cooper dress.
Also revealed was $129,000 given out by the trust in 'koha' during 2012 that wasn't receipted or tracked.
Prime Minister John Key this morning said there will be a full investigation into the spending, but later backtracked, saying it was up to the board to investigate.
"Government puts a huge amount of money into funding early childhood education through Kohanga Reo – about $79 million a year – and what is happening is that the ministers responsible for that are calling in the trust… to ask questions," he said on Firstline this morning.
"There will be a full investigation. We need to get answers – this is taxpayers' money, it needs to be spent appropriately, and if it's inappropriate behaviour, then they'll have the book thrown at them."
But later on, he said: "In the short-term, the Government's vehicle for responding is actually through the board."
Also appearing on Firstline this morning, trust deputy chair Mr Waho said although much of Ms Tawhiwhirangi's spending was eventually paid back, the board remains "extremely concerned".
"We've said to the directors, tell us what's gone on here," says Mr Waho. "On the face of it these are very serious actions and we are not happy. On the behalf of our kohanga whanau across the country, we are not happy."
Ms Tawhiwhirangi , who was jailed for stealing from her employer in the early 1980s, also spent the trust's money at lighting and hunting stores – often without providing a receipt – as well as buying a wedding dress for her daughter, according to Native Affairs.
Her mother-in-law, Kohanga Reo trustee Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, used her work credit card to make nearly $3500 in withdrawals for koha that weren't receipted, meals in restaurants over the Christmas break and a number of purchases from retail stores, including $300 on lamps.
Mr Waho says much of the koha went to "a number of individuals who came forward to support our claim against the Crown before the Waitangi Tribunal", but said without details of the spending, wouldn't attempt to justify all of it.
"Koha is laid for several reasons, and in terms of Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, she is constantly on the road representing Kohanga Reo," he says.
"I do feel confident that we'll be able to explain that, and I absolutely feel confident that Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi will be able to explain it."
But he's not so sure when it comes to Lynda Tawhiwhirangi's spending.
"They are not the kinds of purchases and expenses that our organisation would consider appropriate, and until we get a full explanation, we are reserving our decision about what action to take.
"Our primary and initial concern is to assure Kohanga Reo whanau that we are extremely unhappy and that we are working very hard to get to the bottom of what's gone on."
Mr Waho says it's not every year the trust gives out $129,000 in koha, but didn't have the financial details available at the time of this morning's interview.
Education Minister Hekia Parata said she doubted the allegations, because audits by the Ministry of Education had turned up no irregularities. She and Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples will meet with the board later this week.