Kiwis rebuked for going soft on bribery

New Zealanders are embroiled in four cases alleging bribery of foreign officials in China, Russia and Africa, and authorities here have been rebuked for not taking the matter seriously enough.

The revelations come in an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report on New Zealand's compliance with anti-bribery conventions.

New Zealand's lack of investigation or prosecution of cases involving bribery of foreign officials has long been criticised by the OECD.

The OECD report, published in October, repeated these criticisms, noting it had "serious concerns about the lack of enforcement".

The report said four recent cases identified by the Serious Fraud Office - the body responsible for investigating bribery allegations - were the first to be probed by authorities here since New Zealand signed the OECD anti-bribery convention in 2001.

Only one of the four cases - understood to refer to an investigation into kiwifruit exporter Zespri over alleged bribes paid in China to secure access to markets - has been previously disclosed by the SFO.

The SFO did not respond to questions from the Sunday Star-Times about whether it thought the OECD criticism was justified.

The SFO told the OECD the Zespri investigation was opened in June "on the basis of a newspaper report".

The Sunday Star-Times first reported on the Zespri case in April.

According to the OECD, the SFO opened another formal investigation in June. "The allegation involved a New Zealand citizen, primarily domiciled in another state party to the Convention, having paid bribes to officials in an African country."

An SFO spokeswoman told the Sunday Star-Times last week this investigation has been closed after it was "unable to obtain evidence of criminal offending".

Another case raised by the OECD is understood to refer to the German bribery prosecution of employees of computing giant Hewlett-Packard.

Reports for the Wall Street Journal said the prosecution alleges three Hewlett-Packard vice-presidents created a network of shell companies, including New Zealand-registered entities, to route $12.5 million in bribes to Russian officials in order to win a $60m contract with that country's prosecution service.

The OECD panel was sharply critical of the SFO for not following up the New Zealand link to the Hewlett-Packard case: "The SFO states that it has not investigated the allegations because there is no information as to who is behind the shell company. Information on this case is publicly available and has been reported in the press."

The OECD report notes that following its April visit, in October the SFO made contact with authorities prosecuting the case, but this was only on an informal level.

The SFO said last week it had offered assistance to foreign authorities on the case but "this has not yet been taken up."

The fourth case concerned allegations made in 2012 about a "New Zealand citizen who allegedly paid bribes to public officials in order to gain business".

This complaint was not progressed to an investigation, the SFO told the OECD, because it was based on hearsay and "could not be supported by evidence, nor were potential avenues of evidence identified".

Sunday Star Times