Our top white-collar crime fighter can't afford to do silly things like the rest of us.

I once worked for an organisation where we frequently drank at work. Can't say where - you'd all be sending in your CVs. Oh, OK, it was the National Business Review. But, I've got to say, during that crazy gin-fizzy time we were surprisingly productive.

Dysfunctional and hungover and sleazy and sometimes smelly, but ridiculously hard-working. It was a privately owned company, so it wasn't anyone else's business.

But despite the efficiency, I'm not sure it is the sort of culture we should have at our most sophisticated and powerful white-collar crime squad. As Fran O'Sullivan explained on Wednesday, in legal terms it is a far from trivial matter for the Serious Fraud Office head Adam Feeley to encourage his staff to toast the Bridgecorp prosecution with a bottle of Bridgecorp champagne.

But, prosecutions aside, it makes you wonder about the culture at the SFO. Everything the head of an organisation does sends a message to the staff about what is considered "normal" - and if this communication doesn't throw his judgment as a leader into question, his arrogant response to the issue certainly does.


What does it say to his staff that it is OK to take a bottle of wine from one of the companies you are investigating? If that is OK - hey, it's only a bottle of wine - what next? But what is most wonky about this story has been everyone's eagerness to dismiss it as petty.

We have a proclivity in New Zealand, maybe because we are such a small country, to excuse misbehaviour with an absurd or personal element - a glass of champagne, Tuku Morgan's underpants, police having seedy sex lives - as not worth getting upset about.

Perhaps it's part of our anti-authoritarian "she'll be right" attitude: we like to think of our authority figures as being ordinary blokes like us. We have all done silly things, and we feel uncomfortable about the idea of our own behaviour coming under such scrutiny, so we rationalise it as petty. Or maybe we are just a bit Italian.

But the fact is, our SFO has wide-ranging powers and it should be above reproach. Feeley has relished being cast as the righteous crusader who was going to clean up the finance sector. I profiled him for the Listener when he started, whereas most other SFO directors (except for Charles Sturt) would not even do publicity. When you get the public satisfaction of being the heroic do-gooder, you have to make sacrifices. You can't afford to act like the people you are prosecuting, even in small, seemingly trivial ways.

The people who work at the SFO do seem to feel they are superior: more noble than their venal colleagues in the private sector who are just trying to make a buck. But there is a danger in enjoying this glory too much. Remember Eliot Spitzer? The former New York attorney general was ahead of his time prosecuting cases of white-collar crime but was disgraced when he was found to be spending thousands of dollars on hookers. He resigned and Wall St reacted positively "due to a general dislike of Spitzer amongst investment professionals".

You might say you can't compare Spitzer's sex romps to Feeley's one bot of shampoo. But one thing is for sure: just like Spitzer, Feeley should remember that if he is going to take on the big money, he will have big enemies.

He needs to be bloodless and boring, not a party hound, if he doesn't want them celebrating at his expense.

* Illustration by Anna Crichton: illustrator@annacrichton.com