An air of mystery surrounds the employment status of Fair Trading Commissioner Rod Stowe, who for the past week has been active in the media making loud, clear and regular public safety warnings about faulty USB chargers linked to a woman's death.
On the weekend, reports emerged Mr Stowe had been sacked from the department he had served for 23 years. On Monday, the office of Fair Trading Minister Matthew Mason-Cox was at pains to clarify the state's consumer watchdog boss was simply on leave.
But when Fairfax Media contacted Mr Stowe to clear up the confusion, he seemed muzzled.
"I can't comment," he said. "I've been advised to not say anything. I'm sorry."
Mr Stowe has been at the forefront of the campaign to alert the public about faulty USB chargers after Sheryl Anne Aldeguer, 28, was electrocuted in April. He spearheaded the media blitz and orchestrated raids on NSW retailers spruiking unapproved products.
Mr Mason-Cox, the third fair trading minister in eight months and keen to assert his authority, may have felt Mr Stowe was undermining him, said a source speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"The minister was given a chance to be involved in [the news conference] but his people fluffed it to the extent that they felt left out," he said. "The Premier's office got into his ear and said 'why is Rod Stowe doing this and not you?' So he got a bit of a tongue-lashing about that."
Premier Mike Baird refused to answer questions on whether he had expressed dissatisfaction about the news strategy to Mr Mason-Cox, instead saying he "had full confidence in the minister".
The Department of Fair Trading's two spokeswomen have been "instructed" to re-route all requests to the minister's spokeswoman Melissah Bell. Their names and contact details have been replaced with Ms Bell's on the department's website.
Another spokeswoman for the minister, Virginia McKay, insisted she did not know the duration or type of leave taken by Mr Stowe.
"John Tansey has been appointed as acting Commissioner of Fair Trading … in accordance with usual practice when the Commissioner is on leave," she said.
NSW Opposition Leader John Robertson is demanding answers about the reported sacking, saying it reflected a government in "chaos". He questioned the two-month delay in warning the public after Aldeguer's death in her Gosford home.
"The government needs to explain when it first learned that defective USB chargers were on the market posing a fatal electrocution risk – and why it took so long to inform the public," Mr Robertson said.
Opposition fair trading spokeswoman Tania Mihailuk said: "It would be grossly unfair if Stowe has been made the scapegoat for the chaos caused by having three different fair trading ministers in [eight] months and this government slashing $35 million dollars from the Fair Trading budget."
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