Christchurch rebuild fraud not as bad as predicted, risks remain, Tolley says

Anne Tolley

A proliferation of fraud in Christchurch, predicted by the Serious Fraud Office, hasn't eventuated, says Anne Tolley, the minister responsible for the white collar crime investigator.

The SFO said in its 2013 annual report that it was seeing an uptick in graft associated with rebuilding work following Christchurch's earthquakes, which left much of the central city as a wasteland and created construction and infrastructure work that the Reserve Bank estimates will cost $40 billion. The SFO got 435 complaints in its 2013 year, down from 465 in 2012, while complaints from Canterbury jumped 200 percent to 42.

"Its important we don't get carried away with what's happening in Christchurch" because fraud related to rebuilding work on the scale feared hasn't eventuated, Tolley told the law and order select committee.

The minister was defending the government's decision to remove a 25 percent funding boost given to the SFO to pursue wayward finance companies in the wake of the global financial crisis, a task that has now been completed. The 2014 Budget allocated $7.7 million to the SFO, down from $9.5 million the previous year.

"No one is saying that the risk has changed. In fact the SFO led some work which I passed onto the Justice Minister 18 months ago that shows the risks are reasonably high, particularly around a place like Christchurch, which is why some proactive work has been happening for the last two years," Tolley said. "But the actual workload of the SFO office itself was ramped up because of the collapse of a large number of finance companies, which is coming to an end."

Workload levels for the investigator had dropped back to pre-finance company investigation levels but if extra funding is needed, once the SFO completes its expenditure review, drawing from the government's justice sector fund, which has about $109 million in it, could be an option, said Tolley.

"We're seeing a trend for lesser but more complex cases and that's why we've responded by retaining the SFO in its current form and developing those specialised skills to cope with this new trend," Tolley said.

The SFO didn't "have the sole responsibility for financial crime," Tolley said, and a "whole of government strategy" was needed with the SFO creating stronger ties between the Financial Markets Authority, police and the Organised and Financial Crime Agency, she said.

(BusinessDesk)

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