Fran O'Sullivan on business

Business analysis and comment from Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan

Fran O'Sullivan: Dark side to Hubbard probe

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Adam Feeley's investigation into Allan Hubbard seems to have run out of steam. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Adam Feeley's investigation into Allan Hubbard seems to have run out of steam. Photo / Brett Phibbs

There's something disturbing about the way Serious Fraud Office boss Adam Feeley is going about securing evidence for the SFO's latest tilt against South Canterbury Finance founder Allan Hubbard's lost empire.

Feeley gave National Business Review until 9am today to turn over all the notes and tape-recordings that supported reporter Matt Nippert's recent investigation into transactions involving South Canterbury Finance's dealings over Auckland's Hyatt Regency Hotel.

He also wants to interview NBR's editor-in-chief Nevil Gibson. But intriguingly, the SFO couldn't even spell Gibson's given name correctly in the sections 5 and 33 notice it served on NBR yesterday.

For the record, it is Nevil - not Neville - Gibson. A trifling lapse maybe. But if NBR wanted to have a bit of sport this morning it could ask Feeley's crew to serve a corrected version.

What's disturbing about this episode is that the SFO's investigation is not entirely based on work done by the newly established Fraud Detection Unit, as Feeley's original press statement suggested.

The SFO's actions will have a chilling effect on all business journalists - not just NBR's team - who rely on confidential sources to obtain material for journalistic investigations.

Feeley later said the SFO is investigating five related party loans involving SCF made between 2005 and 2009.

He also told interest.co.nz that he wasn't prepared to name the specific transactions under scrutiny for potential false statements or other fraudulent conduct, at this stage.

Yet hours later he served a notice on a business newspaper which was very specific that the South Canterbury dealings involving the Hyatt Regency and Peter Symes was one of the transactions at the centre of the SFO's latest Hubbard-related investigation.

In his interview with the online news service, Feeley said: "Obviously we know what they are but we don't want to get drawn into the details until we have had the opportunity to review all the documents and also talk with people, who on the face of what we've seen were part of those transactions, to understand what part they played in it and also what representations they may or may not have made."

We can take it that the SFO has served search warrants against Symes and anyone else it suspects may have been involved in what Feeley contends is a possible fraud against SCF's investors and the Government as the guarantor of the SCF deposits.

The South Canterbury Finance receivers will play ball. And Feeley has engaged forensic accountants and insolvency specialists to probe the effect of the transactions on SCF's published financial statements.

At issue is whether various SCF directors/and or executives used related party transactions to pump up the value of South Canterbury Finance at a time when its very solvency should have been questioned.

The credibility problem that Feeley faces is that after four months investigating Hubbard's smaller entities, he has still to make a decision on whether to file fraud charges against the SFO founder on that score.

When Feeley announced his initial Hubbard probe he went in with all guns blazing. But after several weeks of saying the SFO was close to making a decision, nothing has materialised.

Hubbard has major beefs with the process.

He has also taken issue with the way the statutory managers who have control of his own affairs as well as Aorangi Securities and other small entities are managing affairs. "It is like the way the Nazis treated the Jews; they grabbed all their assets under trumped-up charges. You have to wonder who the National Government will pick on next."

Yesterday's events will muddy the waters. Feeley says he doesn't have enough budget to investigate all of the many South Canterbury Finance transactions. But the major concern about the SFO's investigation into South Canterbury Finance is the timing.

Why has it taken until October 2010 for the SFO (and other authorities) to probe SCF's related party transactions?

If concerns had been raised over the integrity of the related party transactions much earlier by our dozy companies officials, SCF may not have scraped into the Crown guarantee scheme in the first place. As it is the taxpayer is the tail-end Charlie for $1.775 billion.

That's where the real inquiry needs to take place. The sooner the Government does the proper thing and institutes a full and public inquiry the better.

- NZ Herald

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