A specialist casino investigations team is targeting offshore gamblers pumping millions through casinos on flying visits to New Zealand.
The team is part of a major reshuffle at Internal Affairs, which is also establishing a major investigations team tasked with prosecuting sophisticated poker machine frauds, an area where it has faced major recent criticism. DIA staff and Internal Affairs Minister Chris Tremain have been briefed on the changes in the past few days. The casino team will be told its priority is potential money-laundering.
"There are some examples of people being in New Zealand for a relatively short period of time and putting quite a lot of money through the casino," said Maarten Quivooy, Internal Affairs' general manager of regulatory and compliance operations. "We are not saying that's necessarily anything illegal, but it does raise the question ‘what do we know about these things?'
"One profile we pulled out of the system was an Asian person who was in the country less than a week and I think their expenditure was around $9 million. Again, you have to stress that you don't know if there was money laundering, but I think we need to get a little smarter about understanding these patterns of casino use and ensuring they are appropriate."
Quivooy said Internal Affairs had seen success in cross-border operations on illegal internet pornography, and wanted to work with agencies in Asia and Australia to track big-money gamblers.
"Yes, we will continue to attend the day-to-day issues at casinos, but beyond that we need to be thinking about what are the big issues of compliance for casinos, and that opens up questions, for example, about money laundering. We are not doing this simply because we are concerned about money laundering in casinos, but because we want to tighten our focus."
Internal Affairs' other new team will be called the regulatory investigations team, which will be given extra support, work under Quivooy's direct command and be told to chase "serious, wilful, deliberate, harmful" offenders.
The department has been heavily criticised in recent years for failing to prosecute alleged pokie rorts. But Quivooy denied the move was a response to that or an acknowledgement of any failings. "We are not doing this to placate people, we are doing it because it is the right thing to do."
Unusually, Quivooy said Internal Affairs would also lobby the courts for stiffer sentences for pokie fraudsters, admitting his disappointment at the punishment of Manurewa pensioner Noel Gibbons, who last month received a six-month community detention sentence for orchestrating a $600,000 pokie scam.
"We would like to see courts recognise the seriousness of this kind of offending," he said. "We would feel better about some longer, stiffer sentences."
Quivooy said the department would take a more pragmatic approach to chasing offenders, pursuing the big targets and negotiating punishments with lesser offenders to save a lengthy, expensive legal process. Recently, it cancelled the licence of one racing-oriented trust, Bluegrass (which is appealing), but agreed penalties with another trust, Grassroots.
But Internal Affairs critic Martin Legge, a former gambling inspector and later industry whistleblower, said the changes were "akin to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic" and a "deliberate and cynical ploy to deflect attention from their spectacular failure in regulating the pokie industry and stopping the rorts".
Legge said Internal Affairs already had a Serious Investigation Unit which had achieved little and he believed the department lacked the "culture, skills and fortitude" to legally outwit rogue trusts.
Pub charity chief executive Martin Cheer said any changes needed political backing. "It's the same [gambling] act, the same people, so why will there be a different result? Catching the bad guys can hardly be called a new initiative. It's what they are meant to do. But it is easy to throw rocks from the sideline. The department needs the political and legislative will to support them. At present, regulations mean some of this [unsavoury] behaviour is lawful and some of it is very hard to prove."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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