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Mongrel Mob boss turned counsellor Paora Sweeney seeks $700k in damages from Corrections

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Former Mongrel Mob boss Paora Sweeney, pictured during the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, Māori hearings, has been involved in an eight-year battle with Corrections. Photo / Supplied

A gang boss turned prison counsellor who lost his job after posting about his Mongrel Mob “brother’s” funeral on social media is seeking almost $700,000 in damages, including for damage to his mana.

Paora Sweeney wants $372,231.66 from the Department of Corrections over the actions of former Spring Hill prison manager Christopher Lightbown through a claim of misfeasance in public office – damages for loss resulting from the abuse of a public office – and a further $325,000 for unjustifiable damage to his mana, an action that has never before been sought.

Sweeney, a former Mongrel Mob founding Waikato gang member who now lives in Thames, began working as a counsellor at Spring Hill through his employer Care NZ in October 2014.

However, in April 2016 he shared a Facebook post that included videos and pictures about the death of his close gang “brother”, Roy “Bulldog” Dunn, who founded the Notorious chapter in Mangere.

A Corrections intelligence officer noticed Sweeney’s post, and informed prison director Christopher Lightbown, who later axed his visitor access to the prison, resulting in the loss of his job.

Sweeney launched court proceedings and won with Justice Matthew Palmer finding in 2021 that while the revocation of access did not breach his right to natural justice, it was unreasonable “and therefore unlawful”.

Justice Palmer said Sweeney had dedicated his life to helping others, yet Corrections’ decision “tarred his present with his past” and “unjustifiably impugned his mana”.

But the fight has continued for Sweeney not only against Corrections but personally after being diagnosed with cancer and suffering two strokes last year.

His downward spiral began as an 11-year-old when he was thrust into state care after his parents died, three months apart.

That had devastating consequences – which saw him give evidence in last year’s Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care – and led him into gang life, and eventually becoming one of the founding members of the Waikato Mongrel Mob.

However, after having children he didn’t want them to go down the same path as he did so he left the gang and gave up drugs, crime, alcohol, and drugs.

While it had been a “lonely journey” he was boosted by the work he had been able to do as a counsellor in showing prisoners they, too, could turn their lives around.

After losing his job he went into a depression before finally getting back into the workforce, albeit in low-paid jobs for which he was over-qualified.

He said Lightbown’s decision “drastically impacted my career and earning capacity” until 2020 when he got a job with Hauraki Womens’ Refuge.

‘Our mana is who we are’

In the civil case before Justice Graham Lang in the High Court at Hamilton this week, cultural report writer Raecheal Riddell-Kingi described a person’s mana as “who we are, our energy, our life force”.

However, when people were raised in an environment that did not protect them, “our mana weakens”, which could see people seeking strength by going down the wrong path, she said in evidence.

Now, Sweeney had “no words left to express the humiliation he has gone through” after losing his job with Care NZ.

She said his mana was “trampled on” by Corrections’ “corruption”, which led to his mental decline and ultimate stress and humiliation.

Asked by Corrections’ counsel Katie Hogan where those words came from, Riddell-Kingi said it was her words describing how Sweeney felt.

‘The Mongrel Mob are very influential’

In his evidence, Lightbown, who worked at Spring Hill between 2013 and 2020 and is currently in between roles at Corrections, said he made his decision “carefully and with security at the front of my mind”.

Sweeney’s counsel Scott McKenna highlighted comments made in an email penned by regional commissioner Terry Buffery in early April 2016, but before Lightbown had made his final determination.

McKenna put to Lightbown that he was influenced by Buffery’s comments that “there was more than enough” evidence to revoke Sweeney’s access but they had to be careful about how they did it.

Lightbown said that could have been Buffery’s view but it was not “my view”.

Asked whether they had any verbal conversations, Lightbown said he would have but could not recall it.

However, he based his decision “on the information that I had on hand”.

Pressed again, Lightbown said Buffery “can’t tell me to make a decision” as he, Lightbown, was in charge of the prison.

“But Mr Buffery made his views quite clear to you,” McKenna said.

“I don’t recall this email trail,” Lightbown replied.

McKenna then read Buffery’s email to Lightbown and another colleague, which was sent after revoking Sweeney’s temporary access but before making a permanent decision: “Good job, Chris, he no longer allows him on the site, good call, Chris”.

“He clearly agreed with the actions I took,” Lightbown replied.

In response to further questioning, Lightbown said he didn’t look into who Dunn was or his connection to Sweeney and said his main concern was the pictures and video he’d shared of gang members on his Facebook page.

Asked by Justice Lang if there was anything that could have changed his mind about revoking access, Lightbown said assurances about the safety and security of the prison, “which was my main concern”.

“The Mongrel Mob, not everywhere, but especially at Spring Hill are very influential,” Lightbown said.

Justice Lang adjourned the hearing until tomorrow.

Belinda Feek is an Open Justice reporter based in Waikato. She has worked at NZME for nine years and has been a journalist for 20.

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