SFO inquiries into several cases of possible wage subsidy fraud

To qualify, employers must make best efforts to top up the $585 payment to a minimum of 80...
The cases have been referred to the agency after extensive investigations by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD). Photo: File
The Serious Fraud Office has launched several inquiries into alleged abuse of the Government's Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme.

The director of the financial crimes department, Julie Read, said in a statement today the accusations relate to multiple complex cases of potential fraud.

The cases have been referred to the agency after extensive investigations by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), she added.

Last year, the Government provided the SFO with funding to specifically investigate fraud arising from the global pandemic. Described by the Government as a "high trust" model, the wage subsidy is part of its response to Covid-19 after the pandemic hit New Zealand in March last year.

Investigating allegations of serious abuse of the wage subsidy meets the mandate for that funding, Read said.

"We are pleased to be supporting the extensive work already being undertaken by MSD in response to abuse of the Covid-19 wage subsidy, by contributing the expertise of our specialist investigative teams to look into cases of a particularly challenging and complex nature," she said.

The SFO would not provide any further comment while its inquiries are under way.

In a report released in May, Auditor-General John Ryan told MSD to toughen up its approach to possible misuse of the wage subsidy scheme.

The report urged MSD and other departments to prosecute companies it believed had wrongly accessed the scheme. Ryan said he did not believe MSD had determined the scale of the problem.

"Because this approach has greater risks of fraud and error, strong post-payment checks are vital to verify that those who received money were eligible," Ryan said.

He also criticised the work MSD did to test whether employers were complying with the rules.

"After payment, MSD's reviews mainly consisted of a verbal confirmation of information by employers," Ryan wrote.

"Although the Ministry of Social Development has publicly described these reviews as audits, in my view they are not audits. In most cases, they did not involve substantiating the facts using independent, or at least documented, information."

The report also noted the departments which managed the scheme had identified "a number" of applicants that they considered might have acted unlawfully.

"In my view, it is important to pursue prosecutions of these applicants. This is because it is important to maintain public trust and confidence in government schemes," Ryan said.

MSD charged two people over allegations of improper wage subsidy applications last month, the Herald understands.

The Auditor-General did praise the departments which managed the scheme, especially MSD, given the limited time they had to establish it.

Since the start of the pandemic the Government has paid out more than $17 billion across all schemes including the wage subsidy and Covid-19 leave support.

Just under $750m had been repaid, according to MSD figures.

Since August 20, the Government has paid a total of $3.2b under Wage Subsidy August 2021, Finance Minister Grant Robertson confirmed yesterday.

The package of economic supports since August 2021 totals $4.3b.

 

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