Company registration in the firing line
New Zealand's lax company registration has come under renewed criticism after a local shell company, with the assistance of Russian and Vanuatuan nominee directors, spirited nearly $1 million through Latvian bank accounts.
On July 30, 2010, the High Court in Auckland appointed Grant Thornton's Greg Sherriff and Tim Downes as liquidators of Premio Partners after a claim for 620,900 ($957,000) from the liquidators of United Kingdom firm International Trading Group (UK).
Premio is a company set up by shell company firm GT Group, operated by the Taylor family, whose pre-packaged companies and nominee directors have been used by clients to ship arms to North Korea and to launder drug money.
According to Sherriff, in October and November of 2008 ITG transferred 620,900 into a Latvian bank account registered in the name of Premio. By the end of December, Premio's accounts had been emptied.
The Sunday Star-Times understands the funds in Premio's accounts were in turn transferred to bank accounts in Germany where the cash "dissipated".
Sherriff said Premio had no assets and no apparent business activity.
"Supposedly the money was used for the purpose of buying computers. Some invoices were provided to that effect – but they don't seem to have existed. It's just a vehicle for channelling money," he said.
"What this does highlight is how easy it is to set up a company in New Zealand to facilitate a foreign interest to use it as a vehicle. It's shocking."
Sherriff said once his liquidation was complete – he is still awaiting bank account information from Latvia – he would be filing a formal report with New Zealand authorities.
According to the United Kingdom's Companies House, Olga Kourova was appointed the sole director of ITG (UK) in June 2008 – six months before the mysterious cash transfers.
Kourova, a resident of Russia, was just 21 at the time of her appointment. Now 25, Russian social-media websites indicate she lives in Moscow. She could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, the New Zealand end of the transaction was overseen – at least on paper – by Vanuatu-based Charles Kalopungi, listed in public documents as Premio's sole director.
Kalopungi is a regular nominee used by GT Group, and according to public documents has been the director of 621 New Zealand companies. Although many have been struck off the Companies Register in the past few years, 34 are still active.
Kalopungi is also listed as the agent for the operators of various websites, many based in Estonia, that have been found by the World Intellectual Property Office to be guilty of cybersquatting.
Sherriff said, despite his best efforts, he had been unable to interview Kalopungi in the 18 months since he had been appointed liquidator.
Media coverage of the GT Group's involvement in money-laundering and the North Korea-bound arms shipment spurred the Government to announce changes, due to take effect in 2013, requiring firms registered here to have a New Zealand resident listed as an agent.
The planned reforms led shell operator Taylor last year to announce to clients he was withdrawing from the shell company game, citing a crackdown by the Companies Office and "irresponsible" media coverage.
However, while his previous operation, the GT Group, has closed down, a new Taylor-linked company, Ready Made Shelf Company Inc registered in Malaysia, has continued its line of business.
Taylor family patriarch Geoffrey Taylor and RMSC did not reply to emails sent this past week.
Taylor's son Ian Taylor is listed as the contact for RMSC, and the company advertises on its website a range of pre-registered New Zealand companies with names like Carlisle Group, Donati International and Pentato Trade. Many have Kalopungi listed as sole director.
RMSC touts New Zealand companies as "beneficial both in terms of business efficiency and reputation".
A source familiar with fringe financing told the Sunday Star-Times New Zealand companies were a preferred conduit in international money transfers.
"You can be sitting in Liechtenstein, jump on the company registration site and put in an address. Print it, sign it, scan it and send it off. You're supposed to disclose directors and file annual results – but the companies never hang around long enough to require anything," the source said.
"They use New Zealand because we're considered a trustworthy country. Nobody blinks with money transferred into and out of New Zealand companies."
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