High-profile New Zealand businessmen - including Mark Hotchin, Warriors owner Eric Watson and former Ngai Tahu chairman Sir Tipene O'Regan - could be in the gun after the Financial Markets Authority announced it intends to take court action against former directors and promoters of the Hanover Group.
The market watchdog said it planned to file civil proceedings early next year against the directors and promoters of Hanover Finance, Hanover Capital and United Finance.
While FMA chief executive Sean Hughes refused to name who was in the authority's sights, he said the proceedings would relate to Hanover's offer documents from December 2007.
"All the advertising and promotional material painted a far rosier picture of the true state of affairs than was the case," Mr Hughes said.
"Investors did not fully understand and were not adequately alerted to the volatility risk and severity of Hanover's situation."
About 16,000 investors lost more than $500 million after the collapse of the companies and the sale of Hanover's assets to Allied Farmers.
Directors who signed the prospectuses of Hanover Finance, Hanover Capital and United Finance in December 2007 include Mark Hotchin, Sir Tipene O'Regan, Greg Muir and Bruce Gordon.
Eric Watson and Dennis Joseph Broit are listed as promoters of securities in the prospectuses.
A promoter is someone who is instrumental in the formulation of a plan or programme pursuant to which securities are offered to the public.
Watson owns a majority stake in the Warriors rugby league club and is reported to be worth more than $200 million.
Sir Tipene was chairman of the Ngai Tahu board and was instrumental in the iwi's land and fisheries claims at the Waitangi Tribunal.
Dennis Broit is a former financial officer of listed real estate company Mirvac Group.
Until last year Greg Muir served as the chairman of children's clothing retailer Pumpkin Patch.
In a statement yesterday, Muir said the former directors would defend claims against them.
"Reports from an expert forensic accountancy firm and the company's lawyers concluded there was nothing materially untruthful in the prospectus and that there is no evidence of any misconduct by the board," Muir said.
If the FMA's proceedings are successful, the court could order penalties of up to $500,000 on each of the accused for every new version of a prospectus or advertisement that included an untrue statement, Mr Hughes said.
If the court establishes there was a breach of law, the FMA may then seek financial compensation from the directors or assist investors in a civil claim.
The FMA said it would be willing to settle with any of the defendants who are named.
Mr Hughes said yesterday the authority had decided not to pursue criminal proceedings in relation to the offer documents.
Although he would not say if Hotchin was likely to be involved in the proceedings, Mr Hughes said the FMA continued to support the freeze over the former director's assets.
The Securities Commission - which has turned into the FMA - froze Hotchin's assets without notice in December last year in an unprecedented display of power.
Hotchin's applications to revoke the freezing orders were dismissed by the High Court.
The asset preservation orders were put in place to ensure that if any investors wished to take civil action against Hotchin in the future, there would be money available should they win.
"We see that asset freeze as extremely important in terms of preserving assets here in New Zealand available for potential investors or for ourselves under a section 34 action [of the Financial Markets Authority Act] so we will be vigorously seeking for its continuance," Mr Hughes said.
The Serious Fraud Office is still probing Hanover and said yesterday it was likely to conclude its investigation in the first half of next year.
"The SFO has been working closely with FMA on this case and will continue to do so, so that any matters of criminal offending that may arise can be dealt with in the context of the SFO's investigation," the SFO's Simon McArley said.