SFO complaints double since quakes

SIOBHAN DOWNES
Last updated 17:34 04/12/2013

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Complaints to the Serious Fraud Office have doubled since the Christchurch earthquakes, despite New Zealand maintaining its spot as the "least corrupt" country in the world.

In its annual report, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) said the most notable emerging threat of the year had been a significant rise in the number of corruption and bribery complaints.

It appeared before Parliament's Law and Order select committee today where it was grilled on whether it was equipped to deal with this rise in the face of budget cuts.

General manager of evaluation and intelligence Graham Gill said the number of complaints to the SFO had received increased from 200 in 2010 to about 430 a year.

"I don't want to be alarmist, I'm saying all we're starting to see is an increasing trend," he said. 

According to the annual report, in the year ending June 2013, 30 new investigations were launched from a total of 435 complaints received.

Labour MP Jacinda Ardern asked what the SFO was doing to anticipate the estimated $1 billion to $2b in potential fraud as a consequence of the Canterbury earthquake rebuild.

Chief executive and director Julie Read said it had set up a number of bodies to inform people about the sorts of fraud that might be committed, and were monitoring complaints and intelligence from Christchurch.

Labour MP Phil Goff noted the SFO had lost a quarter of its budget, going down to $7.7 million, while the cost of the alleged fraud in the South Canterbury Finance case alone was $1.7b.

"We're talking about a drop in the bucket of the investment in your office compared to the scale of the frauds you're investigating," he said.

Read said she did not think there was a correlation between the size of the frauds and the size of their budget.

But as a result of the reduced budget, they might have to take a more strategic approach to selection of cases, she said.

Goff noted the irony that New Zealand was deemed the least corrupt country for the fifth year in a row in the latest Corruption Perceptions Index.

He wondered to what extent the increase in bribery and corruption-related complaints could be explained by foreigners using business practices from their own countries which were not acceptable in New Zealand.

Gill said this was potentially a factor, but people were generally paying more attention to financial crime.

"Once you start raising awareness and shining the torch into dark places, you start to see the corruption," he said.

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- Fairfax Media

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