The Serious Fraud Office has launched several inquiries into alleged abuse of the Government's Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme.
The director of the financial crimes department, Julie Read, said in a statement today the accusations relate to multiple complex cases of potential fraud.
The cases have been referred to the agency after extensive investigations by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), she added.
An MSD spokesperson confirmed to the Herald ten cases have been sent to the SFO and said the ministry will continue to work with the department and police as further investigations progress.
And in the first cases of its kind, MSD also filed criminal charges in the Auckland District Court against two people over allegations of improper wage subsidy applications last month.
Last year, the Government provided the SFO with funding to specifically investigate fraud arising from the global pandemic. Described by the Government as a "high trust" model, the wage subsidy is part of its response to Covid-19 after the pandemic hit New Zealand in March last year.
Investigating allegations of serious abuse of the wage subsidy meets the mandate for that funding, Read said.
"We are pleased to be supporting the extensive work already being undertaken by MSD in response to abuse of the Covid-19 wage subsidy, by contributing the expertise of our specialist investigative teams to look into cases of a particularly challenging and complex nature," she said.
The SFO would not provide any further comment while its inquiries are underway.
The MSD told the Herald as of October 1 2021, it has completed 13,496 pre-and post-payment integrity checks and reviews.
It has resolved 5201 allegations of wage subsidy misuse and referred 1061 cases for investigation, of which 521 have been resolved and 540 are underway. Some $757.1 million in both voluntary and requested wage subsidy repayments has also been received.
In a report released in May, Auditor-General John Ryan told MSD to toughen up its approach to possible misuse of the wage subsidy scheme.
The report urged MSD and other departments to prosecute companies it believed had wrongly accessed the scheme. Ryan said he did not believe MSD had determined the scale of the problem.
"Because this approach has greater risks of fraud and error, strong post-payment checks are vital to verify that those who received money were eligible," Ryan said.
He also criticised the work MSD did to test whether employers were complying with the rules.
"After payment, MSD's reviews mainly consisted of a verbal confirmation of information by employers," Ryan wrote.
"Although the Ministry of Social Development has publicly described these reviews as audits, in my view they are not audits. In most cases, they did not involve substantiating the facts using independent, or at least documented, information."
The report also noted the departments which managed the scheme had identified "a number" of applicants that they considered might have acted unlawfully.
"In my view, it is important to pursue prosecutions of these applicants. This is because it is important to maintain public trust and confidence in government schemes," Ryan said.
The Auditor-General did praise the departments which managed the scheme, especially MSD, given the limited time they had to establish it.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Government has paid out more than $17 billion across all schemes including the wage subsidy and Covid-19 leave support.
Since August 20, the Government has paid a total of $3.2b under Wage Subsidy August 2021, Finance Minister Grant Robertson confirmed yesterday.
The package of economic supports since August 2021 totals $4.3b.