The Serious Fraud Office is investigating the Wellington Tenths Trust over possibly unlawful payments and transactions.
SFO boss Adam Feeley told The Dominion Post yesterday that the agency had received a complaint about the trust.
"We are investigating transactions connected with the Tenths Trust and whether there may have been any payments or transactions related to them which were unlawful," he said.
The investigation comes after Tenths Trust chairman Sir Ngatata Love stood down from all his positions representing Maori - including chairing the Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust - pending the outcome of an inquiry into a $1.02 million payment into an account he held with partner Lorraine Skiffington.
The SFO inquiry means the trust is likely to be under investigation for some time, as Mr Feeley confirmed yesterday that the investigation was at an early stage.
In response to questions from The Dominion Post, Sir Ngatata and Ms Skiffington released a statement via a lawyer saying that, while they wanted to clear their names, it would be "inappropriate" to respond while an inquiry was under way.
The couple have been in a relationship for about seven years.
The existence of the payment into Sir Ngatata and Ms Skiffington's account emerged in the fraud case against Barrie James Skinner and David Ingram Rowley, who were last week handed the longest jail sentence in a New Zealand tax case.
Appearing in the trial as a witness, because she was a client of the disgraced pair, Ms Skiffington rejected accusations that her consultancy payments were structured to keep them secret from the wider Tenths Trust.
Justice Kos, who presided over the case, described the consultancy agreement as "opaque" and said Ms Skiffington's account of what she did for the money was "vague".
Documents obtained by The Dominion Post show the agreement - signed on the same day as Sir Ngatata signed a ground lease for what would become the $90m Pipitea House - would see Ms Skiffington's company, Pipitea House Developments, paid $3m for consultancy services.
The agreement stated in part that Ms Skiffington had been engaged as a nominated Tenths Trust adviser to provide certain professional and supervisory services in connection with Pipitea House.
The nine-storey building in Thorndon is the headquarters of New Zealand's spy network and home to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Ms Skiffington's services also included advice on protocol and dealing with the Tenths Trust, and briefing Tenths Trust lawyers.
Tenths Trust business manager Keith Hindle told The Dominion Post this week he knew nothing about the deal between the Pipitea Street Ltd developers and Ms Skiffington.
Other senior members of the Tenths Trust community said they were staggered to learn of Ms Skiffington's consultancy deal.
A later deal, signed with another Skiffington entity - Strategic Directionz - included the provision of payments of $62,500 plus GST per month for ongoing work.
When these payments began to slip, Ms Skiffington warned that there would be no work done on other proposed Redwood Group projects in Petone, Greta Pt and the proposed Kate Sheppard Plaza, until the matter was resolved.
Redwood Group founder Tony Gapes said payments to Ms Skiffington went through a joint venture bank account.
"They were included in the monthly quantity surveyors' reports that were produced throughout the project, so the payments have never been concealed."
He said that Sir Ngatata introduced the company to Ms Skiffington.
"On checking her out we realised she did have all the connections we were looking for, as she was a lawyer, had worked closely with many of the government ministers and had some good connections into the Wellington commercial world."
PAYMENT EXPOSED AT FRAUD TRIAL
Details of a payment from Auckland property developers that ended up in a personal account for Sir Ngatata Love and Lorraine Skiffington emerged in a High Court decision from the trial of David Ingram Rowley and Barrie James Skinner.
Justice Kos said a company jointly owned by Ms Skiffington was paid $1.4 million by two Auckland property developers seeking involvement in Tenths Trust developments.
Payments were forwarded to entities controlled by Skinner and Rowley, with $1.02m directed into an account Ms Skiffington held with Sir Ngatata.
During the trial, Ms Skiffington faced accusations from Skinner and Rowley's lawyer, Mike Lennard, that the payments were secret commissions, structured to be deliberately concealed from the Tenths Trust.
"Absolutely not," she responded.
Justice Kos wrote: "That is not a matter I need to resolve."
Tenths Trust: Established to administer Maori reserve lands mainly in urban Wellington, the Tenths dates back to 1839 when the New Zealand Company promised chiefs in the Port Nicholson district they would retain one-tenth of the total land ceded by them.
In Sir Ngatata Love's absence, Wairarapa-based businessman Richard Carroll is acting chairman of the trust, replacing interim chairman Mark Te One.
Sir Ngatata Love: One of the leading figures in Maoridom, Sir Ngatata was until recently chairman of the Tenths Trust, the Palmerston North Maori Reserve Trust, The Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust, and the Wharewaka Trust. A professor of Maori business at Victoria University, in 2009 he travelled to Buckingham Palace to receive his knighthood from Prince Charles.
Lorraine Skiffington: A former Hamilton schoolteacher, Skiffington qualified as a lawyer in 1993. About 2005 she became the strategic director for the Hui Taumata Trust after a lengthy period in Parliament as a ministerial adviser in Helen Clark's Labour administration.
In December 2006 she signed the $3 million deal to provide "consultancy" services for the Redwood Group which is now attracting Serious Fraud Office attention.
Redwood Group: Founded by Tony Gapes in 1992, the Auckland property development company had $250 million worth in projects under way by 2005.
In Wellington its most notable development has been Pipitea House, headquarters of New Zealand's spy network and the home of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The project was a joint venture with the Tenths Trust, and Skiffington's original December 22, 2006, consultancy deal related to the project.
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