Stephen Wilce, New Zealand's most senior defence scientist, had an impressive CV. He had seen combat duty in the Royal Marines, worked for MI5 and MI6, and been a member of an Olympic bobsleigh team, competing against the Jamaican team whose story inspired the film Cool Runnings. The trouble was that, it appears, none of it was true.
In a sequence of events highly embarrassing for the New Zealand government, British-born Mr Wilce has resigned after a TV current affairs programme painted him as a Walter Mitty character who embellished his life story with fictitious qualifications and achievements. It has also emerged that Mr Wilce, who had top-level security clearance, remained in post after concerns were initially raised about him by a whistleblower two months ago.
He allegedly told previous employers and colleagues that he had designed the guidance system for Britain's Polaris nuclear missiles, and that he had been a member of the British bobsleigh team that competed at the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988. However, according to the TV3 programme 60 Minutes, no record exists of Mr Wilce serving in the Marines, and no one in the bobsleigh team has heard of him. A business consultant, Steven Saunders, who interviewed him for a senior position in his company in the early 1990s, told the programme that he was suspicious from the outset.
"Very quickly... I found this fellow was telling me massive porkies," he said. When Mr Saunders attempted to investigate his background, "no one had heard of him".
For the past five years, Mr Wilce has headed the Defence Technology Agency (DTA), which provides advice to the New Zealand military on electronic surveillance, defence systems for the Navy and threats to Royal New Zealand Air Force aircraft in Afghanistan. A defence spokesman, Lieutenant-General Jerry Mateparae, said Mr Wilce had already been under investigation over "employment, security and credibility issues" before the programme aired, and was suspended last week.
According to 60 Minutes, Mr Wilce's employees at one previous workplace called him a "rocket scientist" behind his back, because of his extravagant claims. At another, he was known as "Walter Mitty", the fictional character who inhabits a fantasy world.
A scientist who used to work for Mr Wilce at the DTA said he claimed to have designed the guidance system for the submarine-launched Polaris nuclear missile. The US supplied the missiles to Britain from the early 1960s.
Lt-Gen Mateparae said the Defence Force began investigating Mr Wilce after being "alerted through an anonymous set of information". It then decided a comprehensive inquiry was required, leaving him in his job in the meantime.
He praised Mr Wilce's professional performance, saying: "In the time he has worked for the Defence Force, he has delivered some very good results."
According to Mr Wilce's profile on the Defence Force website, he has "an extensive background in defence sciences", and his experience includes super-computing, telescope systems and weapons research.
New Zealand's Defence Minister, Wayne Mapp, said yesterday that he had asked for a full report on how Mr Wilce was recruited, including what background checks were conducted. "I absolutely want to see that this sort of thing would never happen again," he said.