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SFO passes on more than 90% of complaints, says function isn’t compromised by lean budget

The Serious Fraud Office completed 28 investigations last year, amounting to just 6 percent of complaints received though the state agency says its ability to pursue important cases isn't compromised by a lean budget.

Newly appointed chief executive Julie Read appeared before the law and order select committee yesterday for the SFO's annual financial review. The corporate crime investigator is facing the end of 25 percent additional funding it got following the global financial crisis to pursue wayward finance companies.

In its latest financial year, it received 435 complaints, down from 465 in 2012. Complaints from Auckland jumped by 35 percent to 165 while those from Canterbury, where the SFO has warned of large-scale potential fraud from the earthquake rebuild, complaints jumped 200 percent to 42.

By contrast, its total 28 investigations included 20 in Auckland, double the year earlier, and just one in Christchurch. Labour MP Phil Goff, who sits on the committee, asked Read how much more the SFO could recover if it had more funding.

"It's not a case of weeding out important cases," Read told the committee. "Some are below our threshold and referred to other agencies, or they are unfounded."

She said there wasn't a correlation between the size of frauds and the size of her budget. "We've been able to pursue all of these matters within the scope of our current funding."

The SFO is currently embarking on a 'performance improvement review framework assessment' and an expenditure review that will look at what is appropriate for the office, she said.

Still, given the funding drop, the SFO is already looking at ways to trim its costs, including squeezing staff in its Auckland head office onto a single floor. The agency is also looking at whether it can manage its work in "a more strategic way."

In response to a statement from Goff that job cuts were inevitable, she said only that non-essential parts of the service would be cut first. The SFO had 51 staff as at June 2013, from 52 a year earlier.

Asked about the trends in its workflow, SFO general manager, evaluation and intelligence Graham Gill said there had been a significant increase in complaints, which were running at about 200 two years ago.

The other developing trend was an increase in bribery and corruption complaints, "often at a lower level, that we have seen in the past."

The SFO recently investigated an alleged $5,000 bribe, deeming its low value wasn't as important as the threat to New Zealand's international reputation as a secure and transparent country to do business.

Read also defended the SFO's handling of New Zealand's biggest-ever fraud case, South Canterbury Finance, after charges were withdrawn against two of the five accused.

Goff questioned whether the SFO had done an effective job, saying it was "not a good look" to see the charges withdrawn.

Read said she couldn't comment directly because the remaining three defendants were still before the courts but it was "important to take these cases before the courts, whether they are convicted or acquitted."

(BusinessDesk)