Editorial: New direction on organised crime

Last updated 00:00 12/09/2007

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The Government kept that one fairly quiet. On Tuesday, three ministers announced that the Serious Fraud Office, set up in 1990, will close in 12 months and join something to be called the Organised Crime Agency within the New Zealand Police, The Dominion Post writes.

The news came as a jolt for SFO staff, but has been welcomed by NZ First leader and trenchant critic Winston Peters, and probably by Police Commissioner Howard Broad.

His predecessors argued, albeit privately, when the SFO was created that their fraud units could have done the same job had they had the resources and special powers conferred on it. Nearly 20 years later, they are to get what they wanted.

And after some disgraceful police conduct, this initiative is a vote of confidence in the newish leadership and its skills.

Ministers say that manifestations of organised crime are growing here and in the Pacific. Their definition includes cyber crime, identity theft, money laundering, extortion, drugs manufacture, distribution and trafficking, and paedophilia.

The Police Association has long sought a commission of inquiry into organised crime, almost pleading for police chiefs to take seriously gangs that have moved into the drugs business. The SIS has shown interest, too. Its director made a pitch earlier this year for a wider role that incorporated especially transnational organised crime.

He, like Police Association president Greg O'Connor, is to have his wish partially granted - the Government's officials committee on domestic and external security coordination will oversee and advise the OCA. The SIS is on that committee.

After the SFO began work, shortly after the 1987 sharemarket crash, officials told minis ters that, "given the current level of progress and the effectiveness of (SFO) strategies ... serious corporate fraud and white-collar crime generally will be contained and neutralised within five years". How wildly optimistic.

Today, much crime criss-crosses the planet, linking gangs, corporations, political and religious movements, and terrorists. So it is possible to see why ministers might feel that some crime has outgrown the agency set up to deal with it and that a fresh start, marrying the best of SFO expertise with that within police, was desirable. Britain might do likewise.

Clearly, the 17-year-old SFO isn't destined to outgrow its sometimes troubled adolescence. It has gained a reputation - perhaps unfairly - for pursuing only the cases it knew it could win. Mr Peters has long been an opponent, critical particularly of its handling of his Winebox allegations and, later, its refusal to investigate allegations of fraud within the fisheries industry.

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It has also lost some big cases - one involving a former immigration minister, for example - but has secured convictions in others, such as the Huata case. The Government will not want the new agency to shy from difficult cases.

In drawing up its remit, ministers also must be careful that the draconian powers invested in the SFO for what was deemed good reason - how could investigators get crooks to talk unless they were compelled to? - are not allowed to infect other police work. Police have a reputation to retrieve; so, in a way, do SFO litigators. Framing the OCA's duties, therefore, must be done with care and insert the level of scrutiny police have grudgingly come to expect and to which the SFO has largely been immune.

- The Dominion Post

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