Fran O'Sullivan: SFO chief's ticking off fails to reassure

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Serious Fraud Office chief executive Adam Feeley's toasting of Bridgecorp was found to be 'ill-advised'. Photo / Dean Purcell
Serious Fraud Office chief executive Adam Feeley's toasting of Bridgecorp was found to be 'ill-advised'. Photo / Dean Purcell

Serious Fraud Office chief executive Adam Feeley must have taken to chill-out pills, so (atypically ) tame has been his response to the mild ticking off he got on Monday for making an idiot of himself and his office over the Bridgecorp booze affair.

Feeley didn't even manage to orchestrate a joint announcement with Hong Kong authorities over their decision to file corruption charges on Monday against May Wang, the former front person for Natural Dairy's bid for the 16 Crafar dairy farms. The SFO's own statement didn't even get out until yesterday - one day after Hong Kong acted.

The publicity-hungry Feeley will have been acutely annoyed at missing this particular opportunity for pumping up his office's reputation (though yesterday's statement, a typical breast-beating effort by the SFO's contract PR company, was in marked contrast to the more restrained Hong Kong-generated press release).

But it's possible his advisers recommended that, given other events on Monday, discretion was the better option. It's also possible that Hong Kong's International Commission against Corruption had simply decided not to overly promote the SFO's help with the cross-border investigations that led it to charge Wang with conspiring with Jack Chen to offer secret commissions - two properties and HK$73 million ($11.8 million) - to him to organise for Natural Dairy to acquire UBNZ Asset Holdings, a company owned by Wang.

Wang also faces money-laundering charges over the sales proceeds of her company, including two convertible notes with a total value of $150 million.

Irrespective, we now know courtesy of State Services Commission (SSC) boss Iain Rennie that toasting the Bridgecorp fraud prosecution with a bottle of the directors' Gosset champagne is not a sacking offence as far as he is concerned. Neither was the decision to hand out a biography of the late Allan Hubbard at the SFO's Christmas party, even though the failed Timaru financier was still under investigation at that time.

Feeley's actions were merely "ill-advised" and showed a "lack of judgment". But, said Rennie, the SFO's performance had improved under Feeley's leadership. The SSC boss would talk to him about the standards he expected of government chief executives.

Fundamentally, Rennie has failed to address the real issue.

The police and criminal bar have raised valid concerns that Feeley's antics have contaminated the SFO's integrity - particularly its reputation for unbiased judgment.

Two Bridgecorp directors, Rod Petricevic and Rob Roest, who are facing fraud charges laid by the SFO, have already hit out at Feeley's actions. It is inevitable that when it comes to showtime in the Auckland courts, the Bridgecorp duo will have a bit of sport at Feeley's expense.

Maybe Rennie's "investigation" was coloured by the fact that the Prime Minister had described it as a "storm in a champagne flute" - thus setting political expectations before the SSC boss had formally spoken withFeeley.

Feeley's reputation is that of a self-promoting gunslinger who "shoots from the lip". There has been growing dismay within his own office for some time over the way SFO staffers have felt themselves compromised by their boss's cavalier approach. But none of this features in the SSC statement.

Feeley has flicked an emailed apology to Police Minister Judith Collins for causing her embarrassment. But the people he should be apologising to are his staff. And in person.

If I am reading Feeley correctly, he won't have been too fazed by Rennie's mild censure. But he would be wise not to go on a witch hunt within his own office to try to get to the series of leaks which undermined his authority in recent weeks.

The May Wang affair has intrigued on several levels.

First, it quickly brought home the fact that Hong Kong authorities have a tougher approach than ours. The Hong Kong stock exchange quickly suspected the manoeuvres on its own exchange might have had an element of the "pump and dump" form that it has been stamping out. It suspended Natural Dairy 18 months ago.

Second, the Crafar farms bid saw former TVNZ news and current affairs boss Bill Ralston jettison the role of a journalistic ferret to spruik the bid. This was Ralston's public debut as a PR spin-meister - but his attempts to portray opposition to the bid as a xenophobic response against Chinese investment did not hit the mark.

The bid was rejected on character grounds, essentially the now-bankrupt Wang's involvement.

However, publicity over the bid did result in the Prime Minister, Fonterra chairman Henry van der Heyden and others becoming concerned that dairy farm sales to China could result in New Zealanders "becoming tenants in their own countries".

The overseas investment rules have since been tightened.

Finally, the affair exposed Chen's ability to use Chinese networks here to foster his aims. He launched a newspaper to promote New Zealand-Chinese business links, made business connections with celebrities like former All Black Michael Jones and even started a political party which promptly put itself out of business yesterday.

In my view, this whole affair should prompt the Overseas Investment Office to take tougher stances earlier, rather than later, when the bidding vehicles don't stack up.

Wang appeared in the Hong Kong yesterday in the "mentions". At the time this column was written, Chen, who earlier skipped bail, had an arrest warrant out for him.

The Kong Kong release says Hao May, formerly known as Wang May-yan, 49, operator of UBNZ Assets Holdings, faces one count of conspiracy to offer advantages to an agent, contrary to Section 9 (2) (a) of the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance and Section 159A of the Crimes Ordinance; and two of dealing with property known or reasonably believed to represent proceeds of an indictable offence, contrary to Section 25 (1) of the Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance.

At the time of the alleged offences, Natural Dairy (NZ) Holdings was listed on the Main Board of the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

Read more by Fran O'Sullivan

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