Potentially dangerous gaps in New Zealand's company registration system have been revealed as an investigation continues into the North Korean arms seized from a plane hired by an Auckland company.
International agencies are concerned that shell companies, with no apparent trading purpose, are being used to launder money and finance terrorism.
Would-be Seychelles actor and model Stella Port-Louis is a director of 338 New Zealand companies, all based at level five, 369 Queen St, Auckland.
The address, in the Salvation Army's headquarters building, is what is known as a virtual office.
The companies are all owned by New Zealand registered company Vicam, which also owns SP Trading Ltd, which chartered the plane that was seized with the weapons.
The OECD's Financial Action Task Force warned the Government in an October report that "a number of essential gaps" existed here, particularly in knowing whether real people were behind companies.
Duty minister Judith Collins was guarded in her response yesterday. "There are rational and legitimate reasons for shelf companies to be able to be registered," she said. "The alleged activity could be an ongoing matter for police and we do not usually comment."
On December 12, Thai police seized a Georgia cargo plane carrying 35 tons of explosives and weapons from North Korea to what is believed to be Iran.
Owner Air West said it believed the cargo was oil drilling equipment.
It said the plane was chartered by SP Trading, owned by Vicam (Auckland), both of the Queen St address.
Searches reveal Vicam is the only shareholder of at least 1089 registered New Zealand companies. Company registration documents show no stated trading function for any of them.
Vicam is owned by Vanuatu's GT Group Ltd, controlled by New Zealander Geoffrey Taylor and sons Ian and Michael.
Ian Taylor refused to comment yesterday but a GT Group statement said SP was incorporated "at the request of one of our professional clients based in the United Kingdom".
It had met "the due diligence requirements in place with regard to identification of the beneficial owner".
SP's director is Lu Zhang, who is listed as director of 75 other Vicam companies. No residential address is given.
International trading in arms and United Nations sanction breaking are illegal in New Zealand.
Police National Headquarters said the Foreign Affairs Ministry was the lead agency investigating and it would not comment.
Ms Port-Louis' name is on hundreds of online registrations made via GT Group's offices in Queen St. She has a Facebook page and also appears on African star website pages.
Her Facebook's only web-link goes to Lotus Holding Company Ltd, a Seychelles group "providing assistance to numerous private, corporate and institutional clients".
It provides a list of "ready-made companies" including 27 New Zealand listings available for an annual fee of 900 (NZ$1762). They are all at the 369 Queen St address.
Some have a different director, Agnes Jouaneau, who heads dozens of companies here. She looks like a young office worker on her Facebook. Ms Jouaneau directs companies owned by Batavia (NZ) Ltd, whose director is Ms Port-Louis.
Ms Port-Louis' credentials have also been questioned in the US. In 2007, USA Today reported that she was the sole publicly listed officer for nearly 100 firms incorporated in Wyoming.
JoLyn Jordan, an official of Registered Agency Services, a firm that filed incorporations, said she believed Ms Port-Louis was a nominee. "I don't know who she is, or if she's for real," she told USA Today.
Barron's,a Wall Street Journal-owned weekly investment magazine, reports that last year GT used Auckland companies, directed by Ms Port-Louis, to move US$40 million (NZ$55m) through Wachovia Bank to Latvia.
The Financial Action Task Force's report Anti-Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism in October cleared New Zealand's banking system but was critical of the company system.
There were no shell banks for money laundering, it said. "However, there is risk that any entity can carry out banking business as a non-bank deposit taker simply by registering the company with the Companies Office and not using the word bank in its name."
New Zealand had no legal requirements for financial institutions to "identify the beneficial owner". "Important elements are not addressed in either law, regulation, or other enforceable means."
- The Dominion Post