The Serious Fraud Office has been brought into the controversy over a Maori trust's move to buy thousands of hectares of prime Southland farmland, after revelations that an alleged fraudster is involved.
On Friday, Federated Farmers warned about the actions of a hapu that had been creating a stir in the deep south in recent months by offering "exceptional sums" to buy farms on behalf of Arab investors.
The hapu, which claimed to have signed a deal with the foreign backers to guarantee their food security for 99 years, has entered into no-deposit contracts to buy at least 28 southern farms estimated to be worth more than $150 million, but had failed to make agreed payments so far.
Federated Farmers rural security spokesman David Rose said the organisation was "urging a lot of caution" over the offers, and, on Friday afternoon, notified the Serious Fraud Office after learning about the involvement of bankrupt Australian "kaumatua" Shane Wenzel in the scheme. Rose said he did not know of anybody who had seen any evidence the Arab backer actually existed.
Wenzel, also known as Tane Rakau, is currently on trial on 36 charges brought by the Serious Fraud Office relating to mortgage frauds worth nearly $4.7m. The verdict in his case will be delivered in the Manukau District Court on Wednesday. Wenzel is not Maori, but claims to have been accorded kaumatua status by a "hapu" of Maori followers, to whom he provides "life coaching" in an arrangement that has been labelled cult-like by some former followers. Earlier this year, he led the hapu – which claims to be a sovereign nation – on a campaign of protests which disrupted high-profile events such as the high court trial of former MP Taito Phillip Field.
Invercargill real estate agent John Wright, who is brokering the farm sales, said Wenzel had travelled to Southland to visit farms in September. After learning of his background, Wright's agency, LJ Hooker, sought assurances Wenzel would not be involved in the project further.
Although Wright was aware that Wenzel had been accused of acting as a "puppet master" in alleged frauds previously, he accepted the assurances of Wynn Murray, the hapu's Invercargill-based spokesman, that the Australian would be sidelined. But he understood Wenzel remained one of the hapu's trustees and "couldn't rule out him coming back".
Wright said that after payments were not made, he had stepped up the "checks and balances" around the deal and remained optimistic about its prospects, although he had had no contact with the supposed Arab backers.
"It's a difficult situation. You don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth," he said. "From the outset it was too good to be true ... But anyone can walk away from those agreements without any harm done."
Wenzel told the Star-Times he was not actively involved in the farm deal, which was being handled by other members of the hapu, and had been focusing on his fraud trial. He would not specify who the supposed Arab backer was, but said they were not from Dubai, as had been reported. The hapu's connections with the Arab partner had genealogical origins that went back to biblical times, he said, and the deal had been sought because the Crown had not honoured Maori rights.
"The best thing for us is to set up treaties with other countries," he said.
Murray, the hapu's spokesman, did not return calls.
A number of farmers who had signed contracts to sell their farms have pulled out after not receiving scheduled payments, and two real estate firms which usually handled Southland farm transactions had decided not to be involved.
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