SCF charges to focus on guarantee scheme

The $1.7 billion fraud charges involving South Canterbury Finance are expected to allege the company duped Treasury when it applied for admission to the Crown retail deposit guarantee scheme, the Serious Fraud Office has indicated.

The allegations that finance industry figures misled the Treasury in seeking taxpayer backing have fuelled Opposition calls for an independent inquiry into the scheme's management.

The SFO this week announced it was laying 21 charges against five people involved with the company that collapsed last year, landing the taxpayer with a $1.7b bill.

The charges are thought to constitute New Zealand's largest fraud case.

SFO boss Adam Feeley has been unwilling to give details of the charges until the defendants appear in Timaru District Court on January 16.

But he has confirmed that the total estimated value of allegedly fraudulent transactions "included an estimated $1.58b from entering the Crown Retail Deposit Guarantee Scheme''.

"We never stepped away from the fact that amongst the transactions we would be looking into would be the transaction that brought South Canterbury Finance within the guarantee scheme,'' he said.

"Frankly, if fraud simply involves making a misrepresentation ... to obtain a benefit, then certainly entering into the guarantee scheme could fit that.''

Labour finance spokesman David Cunliffe repeated his call for an independent judicial inquiry into Treasury and the Government's management of the retail deposit guarantee with particular reference to South Canterbury Finance.

He was joined by Greens co-leader Russel Norman, who said the inquiry should be headed by a senior judge assisted by financial experts.

Finance Minister Bill English has been unwilling to comment, saying he was unable to because the matter was before the courts. However, through a spokesman yesterday he said he was satisfied Treasury's management of the scheme, including South Canterbury Finance, had been satisfactorily examined by the Auditor-General in a report published in October.

That report found Treasury did not work hard enough to protect taxpayers from risks inherent in the scheme and did nothing when some finance companies, including South Canterbury, increased their borrowings while under its coverage.

Dr Norman said the Auditor-General's report, conducted before the Serious Fraud Office completed its investigation, wasn't sufficient but had nevertheless raised questions about Treasury's management of the scheme.

He said Mr English was unwilling to engage on the issue "because it happened under his watch''.

"You can blame Labour for the way it set up the scheme, which was in a big rush, but how it was managed after it was set up falls under the current Government and the current Minister of Finance.''

News of the SFO charges this week also called Treasury's credibility into question.

"Treasury [is saying] we've got to cut back on this that and the other because there isn't enough cash and here they clearly haven't managed the thing closely enough and it's ended up costing the taxpayer a lot more money than it should have.''

- Adam Bennett, The New Zealand Herald



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