Jury to decide whether fake email bid to disrupt

Was a Dunedin grandmother’s fake postponement letter for a petroleum-industry conference a desperate bid to disrupt or only a joke?

The jury in 64-year-old Rosemary Anne Penwarden’s trial will decide today whether she is guilty of forgery and using a forged document.

Just days before the Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand conference began on September 30, 2019, at Queenstown’s Millennium Hotel the defendant sent a spoof email saying the event had been called off.

"We apologise for the inconvenience. We will endeavour to reimburse stakeholders for registrations, including flights to and from Queenstown where possible," she wrote.

"Our only recourse at this point is to completely reassess our approach to the basis of our industry, petroleum ... But there is a silver lining to all of this: we will not be there to listen to that incessant chanting."

Supporters of Rosemary Penwarden make  their message clear outside court yesterday. PHOTO: PETER...
Supporters of Rosemary Penwarden make their message clear outside court yesterday. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH

Penwarden admitted composing and sending the email to those scheduled to speak at the symposium but said it was simply satire.

“You have a bit of fun doing that and it’s a form of protest,” she told the jury yesterday.

“I really liked the idea of being directly able to communicate with these people inside [the industry].”

Rosemary Penwarden
Rosemary Penwarden
Penwarden said she thought the email had simply been ignored but the court heard conference organisers worked frantically behind the scenes to reassure delegates the event had not been cancelled.

She said she was in a state of “absolute astonishment” when, seven months after the conference, police seized her phone and laptop, and laid charges in June 2020.

For the jury to find Penwarden guilty they would have to believe she was lying when she sat in the witness box, her counsel Ben Smith said.

“A 64-year-old grandmother of two, came along, swore an oath and lied to you in front of her grandchildren? Is that what you think has happened?

“It was an attempt at using humour to reach out and make that human engagement ... Ms Penwarden didn’t intend it to be taken seriously. She’s not a liar and she’s not a criminal.”

Crown prosecutor Richard Smith told jurors to reject the assertion the fake email had been used to provoke debate on environmental issues.

“It was just to cause disruption to the conference with a thinly veiled defence of satire woven into it,” he said.

“What better way to disrupt the conference than have some of the presenters not turn up?”

Richard Smith stressed that jurors were not being asked to judge Penwarden’s character.

“It isn’t about suggesting or calling Ms Penwarden a bad person — not at all, far from it. Maybe a bad decision but not a bad person,” he said.

Likewise, Richard Smith said it was not the jury’s role to evaluate the issue of climate change.

Earlier, a statement prepared by climate scientist Prof Carl-Friedrich Schleussner about the severity of the impending environmental catastrophe was produced by the defence.

“The science is clear ... time is running out,” he wrote.

Richard Smith said the evidence assisted the Crown case.

Penwarden’s resistance, he said, had not been effective and so she took more extreme measures in a bid to derail the event.

The prosecutor said the “golden thread” — the piece of evidence that put the defendant’s intent beyond reasonable doubt — was the email address she created to send out the fake postponement.

Using the email address conferencepepanz@gmail.com was to ensure the recipients believed the source was legitimate, he said.

But Ben Smith suggested the Crown had isolated the potentially incriminating parts of the email while overlooking others.

“If you only look at the set-up of the joke and not the punchline of course it’s going to be quite different,” he said.

Judge Michael Turner will sum up the case this morning before the jury retires to consider its verdicts.


ROB KIDD, court reporter: rob.kidd@odt.co.nz