Peters has been taken in, says Staples

PAYOUT: Bryan Staples has received more than $7000 in costs from EQC.
PAYOUT: Bryan Staples has received more than $7000 in costs from EQC.

Winston Peters, earthquake fraud, unpaid migrant labour, patched gangs and Christchurch's own "Robin Hood" figure, Earthquake Services' Bryan Staples - this week it made a merry mix.

On Wednesday, under the protection of parliamentary privilege, NZ First leader Peters dropped a bombshell in accusing Staples, the self-professed champion of the insurance downtrodden, of not just failing to pay his taxes but instructing staff not to file GST and PAYE returns.

Peters further alleged Staples had used unqualified tradespeople to prepare house inspection reports, "robbed blind" Filipino workers he had brought into the country, and employed "the old tactic" of inventing disputes to avoid paying subcontractors.

In short, thundered Peters, he was a Robin Hood who was doing plenty of taking but no giving to the poor. "Staples has used his companies to defraud, mislead, and cheat people." Serious charges.

Peters said this showed the Government and its ministries were asleep at the wheel.

The authorities were told the Canterbury earthquake recovery was going to be a magnet for opportunists and crooks. Now here was the most prominent insurance advocate, with some 1500 claim files and $1 billion in disputed pay-outs under its care, firmly in the spotlight, according to Peters.

The indication from Peters' camp was he has a "dossier" on Staples, affidavits from former business partners and an email trail. Sufficient evidence.

But what is the truth? And where does it leave the many often desperate and vulnerable homeowners whom Staples is meant to be still helping?

It is a storm that has been brewing awhile. When it hit, Staples had only been back one day from a fortnight's honeymoon in China, where he wed his Chinese partner, Mei. He found himself fielding media inquiries in gaps during day-long negotiations with the Earthquake Commission.

Staples countered that Peters had gone off half-cocked. It all stemmed from soured business relationships, and then a run-in with a debt collection agency, Ironclad Securities, whose director and part-owner is a Christchurch member of the Head Hunter gang.

"All these things [Peters] has brought up are exactly what the Head Hunters have done in their extortion attempt of me, exactly word for word," Staples told television cameras.

A thumbnail sketch of Staples is that he is a Queensland loss adjuster who was flown over by EQC two days after the first September earthquake but fell out with his bosses and left to start his own assessment and opt-out repair business.

With cash promising to stream through the Canterbury rebuild, Staples set about finding business partners and forming ventures in every area from the importation of Chinese crack-covering fibreglass wallpaper to the founding of a now bankrupt immigrant labour agency, We Power.

However, a claims resolution service has proved the most lucrative of his entrepreneurial activities.

At his "alternative earthquake hub" off Fitzgerald Avenue, a broken building with slumped floors and decorated with anti-EQC banners, Staples works alongside 45 staff, including two barristers and a nine-strong legal team.

Offering a "no-win, no-fee" deal taking 10 per cent of any uplift in the final settlement, Earthquake Services commissions engineering and quantity surveyor reports on a property, hits EQC or the insurance companies with a lawsuit, then attempts to settle the claim through negotiation.

Peters' allegations look to apply broadly to the rapidly growing business empire that could easily net Staples many millions in a few short years. But Staples replied that if he had been fiddling his taxes or dodging his creditors, surely the authorities would have acted by now?

Instead, Peters had been taken in by disgruntled ex-business associates over a matter that was currently the subject of a High Court defamation case.

Staples' story is that last year he was let down by quantity surveyor Malcolm Gibson, a builder who bought a software package and formed Q2-QS to do earthquake damage reports.

After 125 property reports, amounting to $189,000 worth of work, Staples "discovered" Gibson was not professionally qualified as a QS and so the reports had to be redone at Staples' expense.

After Staples refused to pay, Gibson then "sold the debt for $1" to a newly formed debt collection agency, Ironclad, jointly owned by a Head Hunter with a prison record, Lyndon Richardson, and a wealthy Christchurch house builder, Richard Freeman of Onyx Homes.

Staples sees it as a vengeance move. On an evening in March, two large, intimidating, tattooed men thumped on his door and demanded payment of the debt within seven days. When he ignored them and instead called police, he says untrue statements appeared on Ironclad's Facebook page.

Gibson for his part has admitted he is so bitter about Staples' treatment of him that the money has become irrelevant and that Staples knew perfectly well that he was operating on the basis he was a builder with 50 years' experience in costing work.

The dispute was simply an excuse to avoid payment. Ironclad's Freeman said he was restricted as to what he could say because of Staples' defamation suit against his collection agency (the first hearing is not due till next month).

However, Freeman said the Head Hunter remarks were a transparent effort by Staples to deflect attention from the substance of Peters' claims. Freeman said he ran a legitimate business, even if his methods might be "old school". Richardson was a mate who "has paid his debt to society".

"Yes, we knock on doors. People may not like that. But we don't break the laws. We're not delivering Girl Guides' biscuits. We're debt collectors."

So questions have been raised but it is unclear how fast they will be answered.

Peters is not planning further immediate revelations. With liquidators to provide an initial report on We Power's collapse next week, something may be learnt of whether there were unpaid taxes or other irregularities there.

Peters said Inland Revenue, Department of Labour, Serious Fraud Office and others had had the same information handed to them, but so far there had been no news of action.

Meanwhile, at Staples' office this week, his staff appeared to work on calmly as the media trooped in and out.

On leaving, Sarah O'Brien of Staples' 8D opt-out project management team called: "Here, take a moment. Have a look at this." She gestured to a client file she was preparing - underfloor photographs of a house foundation "jacked and packed" by contractors using a broken chair leg and other building scraps.

"Tell Winston to come down here and talk to us if he wants to see the real corruption taking place in Christchurch."

The Press