Panama Papers: Onetai farm sale goes feral, puts OIO in the spotlight

The Onetai Station in Taranaki includes some spectacular coastal scenery but had a remarkable inventory of pests.
Hougarden.com

The Onetai Station in Taranaki includes some spectacular coastal scenery but had a remarkable inventory of pests.

OPINION: Mossack Fonseca, feral goats, an alleged toxic leak in Argentina, polo ponies, and a link to former Brazilian soccer manager Luiz Felipe Scolari and a multimillion-dollar Portuguese tax investigation.

The tale of the $6 million sale of the Onetai station in Taranaki keeps giving.

How could the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) have sold a slice of Kiwi coastal paradise to businessmen allegedly held responsible for polluting a river overseas, and through a company whose treasurer also ran a company that months later would be embroiled in a multimillion-dollar Portuguese tax fraud and money-laundering investigation? 

I have to be honest here, after looking through dozens of documents released by the OIO relating to the Onetai station sale, I think the answer is "quite easily".

READ MORE: Onetai farm firm treasurer directed company in Scolari tax investigation

The Onetai station tangle (let's not call it a scandal yet) could even help revive Labour MP David Cunliffe's battered political career, though that remains a very long shot.

After being relegated from leader to the unpromising post of land information spokesman, Cunliffe struck gold last month when he asked minister Louise Upston whether the OIO had received any purchase applications from buyers associated with Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

It was Upston's answer to the question – yes, one – that put the Onetai story train in motion.  

If there is one thing most people who have been following the saga will take away, it is that the OIO does a lousy job of policing the country's rules surrounding the sale of sensitive land to foreigners.

But it would be unfair to claim the OIO just rubber-stamped the sale.

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There was lots of communication with the buyers over their investment plans, public-access guarantees and how to rid the station and surrounding bushland of its pest problem.

In February 2015, following the sale, a contractor culled 1034 goats, 84 wild pigs, 891 possums, eight wild cats, 116 rabbits, 200 geese and 92 magpies from the property.

It sounded like Onetai would have made a good set for Hunt for The Wilderpeople.

With a sale price of $6m, the station was worth about as much as a postage-stamp-sized block of prime suburban Auckland real estate. 

Given that, I was reasonably impressed with the breadth and depth of the issues the OIO considered before approving the sale of the land to... 

Well, here's the snag; I am not convinced either I or they are completely sure who they allowed the farm to be sold to, except that it was through a Panamanian company called Ceol & Muir. 

A couple of different diagrams flowed back and forth between the buyer's lawyers, Kensington Swan, and the OIO, including one that showed an arrowed line between Argentinian businessmen Rafael and Federico Grozovsky and Ceol & Muir annotated "100 percent shareholding".

But according to the latest statement supplied to me by the OIO, it appears far from clear that the Grozovsky brothers ever swore they were the sole owners of the company.

Instead, if they attested to anything regarding the proposed ownership of Onetai station, it may have been to a more complicated "wiring diagram" which clearly indicated other unnamed members of the "Grozovsky families" would ultimately have a "beneficial interest" in the property.

The OIO told ministers in December 2013 that the Grozovsky brothers were the ultimate owners of Ceol & Muir. If they were materially wrong about that, this story could have another few chapters in it yet.

 - Stuff

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