Sarah Sparks married Greg Olliver in 2000. Twelve years later it fell apart. This year, self-represented Sparks gets her day in court. David Fisher investigates ...
Beginning at the end
When the marriage fell apart, Sarah Sparks realised she had no idea how much money her husband Greg Olliver had.
There always seemed to be plenty, even when he went to the wall owing $92 million.
There was the house in St Heliers, the late-model cars, the $8m estate in Marlborough which had its own cricket pitch with professionally laid turf.
Olliver, who has always loved cricket, even had a pavilion built.
But that day in 2012, when Olliver walked out of the sprawling family home in St Heliers, was a revelation.
Sparks realised she knew nothing about their finances. "I really didn't know how everything was structured. I still don't know to this day."
It's a question others have asked; the creditors owed $92m, the liquidators of the company which owned the St Heliers land.
It's eight years since Independence Day - he left on July 4, 2012 - and Sparks still doesn't know the answer. Eight years after they separated, their divorce case is finally to be heard at the High Court in Auckland in June.
In that time, Sparks racked up $2m in lawyers' fees before accepting she would have to represent herself in the string of court cases that built up around the divorce action.
All the while, Olliver lives in Auckland's leafier eastern suburbs while she rents where she can afford. He drives a late-model four-wheel drive, she has a second-hand car she brought by trading belongings to meet the sale price. He goes on Pacific island holidays, she goes home to Canterbury, where her dad mortgaged his farm to pay for her lawyers.
Olliver turns up at court with lawyers. Sparks turns up alone, with a bundle of precedent cases and submissions under her arm.
Surely, is her underlying question, something came out of the marriage.
Getting what you deserve
"She's entitled to 50 per cent of what's there but can't get anything pinned down," says Professor Mark Henaghan, of the University of Auckland's Faculty of Law.
When Sparks ran out of money for lawyers around 2016, and couldn't borrow any more, her lawyer at the time introduced her to Henaghan. The professor does a lot of pro bono work - not court work but advice around cases and the precedents which might apply.
For someone with no money for lawyers, help which doesn't cost is a wonder in a system where an experienced legal aid lawyer gets $149 an hour for court work but fees spiral upwards rapidly. Good lawyers hired privately command five times that amount. Legal superstars top $2000 an hour.
"Lawyers," says Henaghan, "are not cheap."
The Property Relationships Act - a specialty of Henaghan's - governs the divide of property at the end of a relationship. The law is meant to be a living creature, with successive cases allowing it to mature with society.
Passed in 1976, various parts of the act are creeping towards decrepitude. Time has allowed case law to insert increased ambiguity, perhaps shown most clearly in the 2017 Supreme Court decision in which each of the five Justices held dissenting opinions.
And it takes too long, says Henaghan. The case which reached the Supreme Court came out of a separation in 2007. The Sparks case will be eight years on from separation before reaching its first substantive hearing.
"It seems to me we've created a system to just burn people off," says Henaghan. "People just give up. [The civil system] has too many avenues to slow things down.
"The lawyers who do it are not acting unethically. They are there to protect assets for their clients. The rules are very much stacked for the people who have the money to keep the engine running.
"It's taken years and they haven't even divided anything yet."
So Henaghan has offered advice, guidance to precedent cases, read over submissions drafted by Sparks at her kitchen table.
"She's getting as good as a lawyer now," he says. "She's incredibly motivated and incredibly hard-working."
Love on Paratai Drive
They knew each other as teenagers growing up in Christchurch. He played in her father's cricket team, then years later walked into his real estate business with an idea about a property purchase.
Sparks, whose interest in marketing and public relations would later turn into a business, was working as an airline steward at the time and back in town visiting her father.
Olliver was charming. He asked her out for lunch, she accepted. "He was doing property but not to the scale he did in Auckland."
By the time they got married in 2000, Olliver was doing big deals. There was Catalina Point, a subdivision on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula. He had 198 hectares at Long Bay, and 110 hectares of the Mt Wellington quarry, which would later - not under his ownership - be transformed into a major housing project.
Olliver was a high-flyer. He had proposed on Paratai Drive on New Year's Eve while they watched fireworks at a friend's house. "He just whipped out all these diamonds. Platinum and diamond ring and champagne, and platinum and diamond earrings."
They married on Pacific Mermaid, a superyacht, in the waters off Islington Bay in the Hauraki Gulf.
Olliver had also bought a property which would be the family home in St Heliers. The home, and its adjoining property, were a land package he bought with an eye on development.
"This is where we're going to live," she recalls him saying. "He'd already bought it. I remember looking through the windows. I'd never looked through the house."
The house and land around it was owned by Olliver's BBG Trust Ltd. It started with five properties bought in 2000, then grew to 14 properties which all shared boundaries, including one which was the family home.
The five properties were heavily encumbered by debt - around $12m owed mainly to Guardian Trust and Westpac.
The debt was only part of the enormous line of credit Olliver had established.
Then the Global Financial Crisis hit and many of those owed money by Olliver or his companies were teetering on the brink of financial oblivion. Some were solid, like the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. Others, like South Canterbury Finance, were anything but.
Olliver, too, was on the edge of collapse. One creditor, St Laurence Lending Ltd, wouldn't be swayed and filed insolvency action against Olliver.
In total, High Court documents show, he owed $92.6 million.
Sparks admits to being oblivious at the time. She had focused on home, children and building up her small public relations consultancy.
"I still don't know how everything was structured, and all the ins and outs."
Olliver avoided bankruptcy, striking a deal called a "creditors' compromise".
In doing so, he told the court he had nothing.
There was no money in any of the companies, or in the five trusts in which he had an interest. Property owned by the trusts had mortgages, on which he had given personal guarantees.
The mortgages were in default and the properties they were secured against would not raise enough money when sold to pay back what was owed. He told the court there was just one trust with assets. It had a computer, two vehicles and a phone system.
There was income from a farm in Marlborough which was used to pay a debt owed to South Canterbury Finance, and a $525,000-a-year consultancy fee, which was for two years.
The deal proposed would see creditors paid less than half a cent in every dollar owed. What's in it for the creditors, asked associate Justice John Faire. The answer: "At a minimum, it offers investors a small return, whereas bankruptcy offers creditors nothing, as Mr Olliver is insolvent."
In the midst of a compromise over $92m of debt he couldn't pay, Olliver found a way to keep the St Heliers properties in the family, if not directly in his name.
To do so, he needed a new line of credit and some cash.
The $92.6m debt mountain
Sarah Sparks is not the only one who has tried to work out how much money Greg Olliver has.
In 2009, during the creditors' compromise deal, there were those owed money by Olliver and his entities who didn't want to strike a deal.
Instead, they fought to understand the twists and turns of Olliver's financial structures to see if - in the complex corporate maze - there was cash that would increase the return beyond half a cent in every dollar.
Finance company St Laurence Lending Ltd was one of those. It was the 19th finance company of 2008 to declare instability. It had loaned $250m - mainly older New Zealanders' savings - into property development, loans and investment.
When the GFC slid St Laurence Lending Ltd onto the finance company avalanche, it assured its investors they would be repaid, albeit in installments. Recovering money from debtors such as Olliver was an important part in meeting its obligations.
Internal company documents obtained by the Herald reveal its difficulties in doing so - a mirror, of sorts, of Sparks' struggles in years to come.
Other documents obtained through the Herald's investigation further reveal Olliver's deft navigation of his financial collapse.
Olliver's initial bankruptcy hearing was set for February 4, 2009. It was adjourned with the creditors' compromise proposal filed with the court on February 5.
The document was an offer to those owed money and gave a month before votes were due to be cast as to whether it would be accepted or not.
Those opposing the deal didn't have a month to decide. Instead, evidence to the court shows the document was sent to them on February 26, leaving just four working days to properly investigate the proposal.
Those few weeks at the end of February and beginning of March were a key period, during which much happened very quickly.
First, there were changes to key company structures that distanced Olliver from potential sources of cash. On February 27, 2009, he resigned his directorship of CIT Holdings. Ownership of the company also changed. It had been owned by Capital Investment Trust - owned by Olliver's friend Wayne Bailey, a Christchurch accountant - but ownership shifted to the Glover Trust Corporation Ltd, created the same day with Sparks and Olliver's lawyer Don Thomas listed as shareholders.
The new company was the ownership vehicle for the Glover Trust, one of the five trusts that creditors understood to be associated with Olliver (the others being the BBG Trust, CIT Trust, Pheonix Trust and Waimarie Trust).
Olliver had offered an assurance he was distant from the new structure, the St Laurence internal report stated. Drawing on legal documents, it said: "Olliver claims that he has been 'removed as a beneficiary' from these Trusts." The Herald also has a signed agreement from Olliver in which he stated he had been removed as a beneficiary of the Glover Trust.
CIT Holdings was the company which would come to own the St Heliers land, but to do so it needed money.
Documents show Olliver found that money on March 2, 2009, just days before the compromise with creditors was agreed.
With debts of $92.6m, and on the brink of financial collapse, the BNZ stepped forward with an offer to lend Olliver $6.75m.
While the company structures distanced Olliver from CIT Holdings, the draft loan agreement was clear that the loan was tied to Olliver. A copy of the draft loan agreement stated the bank was lending the money to a "Greg Olliver entity - details to be confirmed". It named Olliver as the guarantor.
The BNZ would have security for the loan. It was to be secured by the St Heliers' properties, even though - at that time - the land was still held in the BBG Trust Ltd, of which Olliver was director and shareholder, and still heavily mortgaged.
The land was liberated, though, when a company called Taurus - owned by Olliver's friend Bailey - bought the mortgages on the properties for $7.8m. It transferred the land four minutes later to CIT Holdings for $8.3m.
Evidence later produced in court showed the BNZ mortgage and an additional $2m loaned by the Waimarie Trust was used to pay for the land.
The final loan agreement with the BNZ, obtained from court records, no longer referred to a "Greg Olliver entity". Instead, the loan was to CIT Holdings. It had also removed Olliver as the guarantor of the loan, a move which was questioned by the BNZ in emails obtained by the Herald.
The BNZ's Craig Dungey, the Dunedin banker who appears to have been Olliver's main contact with the bank, asked the property developer why he couldn't personally guarantee the loan.
Olliver told him it could upset the deal that creditors were being offered. One more creditor on the list of debts "could potentially leave the scheme exposed from the vocal minority".
"A $6.75m swing on this thing would sink it if it was to be reviewed in anyway."
He told the bank not to worry - he wouldn't "walk away from this debt, guarantee or no guarantee". In doing so, he referred to words he attributed to his mentor - and newly appointed BNZ chairman - John Waller. Olliver claimed Waller believed "the most financially lucrative thing ... was to walk away from everything rather than put the [creditors'] scheme together".
Olliver also name-checked one of Dungey's managing executives, Gerald Sare, who was copied in. He told Dungey that Sare wouldn't think "for one moment ... I would walk away from this debt, guarantee or no guarantee".
The loan was secure, he said, and allowed for $500,000 to help meet interest payments on another loan from the BNZ. He said he was also "putting up $1.05m of committed income in the bank's favour" - a figure matching the $525,000-a-year consultancy fee Olliver assured creditors was income to help meet his debts when pitching the compromise deal.
The final loan document shows the BNZ lent the money and did so without Olliver's name appearing on the official document. The loan document carries a single line through Olliver's name, ruling him out as guarantor. It is signed by Sparks.
An Inland Revenue tax assessment document written a few years later said: "This removed the Waimarie properties from entities under the control of Mr Olliver prior to the High Court hearing of his Creditors Proposal into a company with his wife and solicitor as directors."
Justice Faire said there had been a complaint that "Mr Olliver maintained some controlling interest in assets which are beyond the reach of his creditors because they are owned by the interest of Mr Olliver's wife [Sparks]."
This was balanced by an affidavit from Thomas, who was also Sparks' lawyer, as to her "independence". This "has not been challenged", he said.
Faire approved the creditors' compromise in May 2009, tying Olliver to paying $100,000 a year or half his annual earnings over the next three years.
But Olliver's manoeuvring a few months earlier also meant he emerged from the $92m debt with Sparks and his lawyer as directors in a company owning the same five prime St Heliers properties he had originally bought nine years earlier. An IRD document stated that, a month later, CIT Holdings bought neighbouring St Heliers properties with $1.65m from the Waimarie Trust.
A year after the split - and after the creditors' deal had run its three-year course - an entity of Olliver's went to court and took control of all the properties.
Sparks was shut out, setting in train events that would see her anchor the properties with caveats protecting her matrimonial property claim.
Even now, told there may be nothing of value at the end of her legal marathon, she reserves belief.
The courts, she says, will provide the answers. That's where the evidence will be produced, and with knowledge gained by hindsight, where it will be tested.
When it all felt apart
In the three years of the creditors' compromise, life for Sparks continued as it had before.
The family continued to live in St Heliers. They drove nice cars and enjoyed the finer things in life.
For all the court was assured of Sparks' independence, her role as a director and shareholder of CIT Holdings made little difference - she says Olliver continued making key decisions relating to its main assets, the St Heliers land.
This was later cited in court as the cause of tension, then frustration and eventually anger that led to the end of the marriage.
Olliver saw the St Heliers land as a tremendous opportunity to make money - a development on bare land, on a rise with unparalleled views of the sea over park and sports grounds. Sparks saw the burden of debt, and decisions being made with which she wasn't comfortable.
A later court judgment said "relationships between Mr Olliver and Ms Sparks deteriorated through 2010 and 2011, fuelled in part by her fear that his development plans (for the properties) were overambitious and unduly risky".
Olliver, on the other hand, "took the view that the delay was imperilling the joint venture business, and consequently placing at risk a number of other entities controlled by him".
She was the cautious one, Sparks says. "Greg takes a Tigger mentality. I'm more an Eeyore." It's not a criticism, she says, just that they were built differently.
Sparks said she planned to sell the properties off one at a time, to "clear the debt".
"That's where the tension started," she says.
"He would go and engage all these professionals and he's not even a company director, and we would get these bills, and I'm saying, 'what's going on?'"
The tension increased. "Greg was really stressed," says Sparks of that time. "You've got to understand, too, he travelled a lot. I didn't see him as much."
Sparks went to see Anne Hinton QC - a lawyer renowned for her capability in representing the wealthy in divorce cases - and was told "to do all possible to protect her asset position", the High Court recorded.
It was to bring the end days of the marriage. In a provocative move, Sparks had legal documents drawn up to shift the properties under her direct control.
Sparks says the marriage was over from July 4, 2012. "He just got up and left. He disappeared for six weeks. I didn't know where he was."
It was over but the friction continued. Sparks was still director of CIT Holdings and she balked at invoices sent to her by Olliver.
One invoice in August 2012 had her write to an engineering and surveying company: "I have been meaning to advise that there is a whole lot of work you are being asked to do for CIT Holdings on the [St Heliers development] that as a director of CIT I have no clue about what is going on.
"Greg doesn't have delegated authority ... please stop all work until further notice."
The pre-emptive asset shifting by Sparks was in court in 2013. Olliver was successful, both at the High Court and Court of Appeal, and regained control of the properties after showing he had ultimate authority over the trust which held the shares.
Sparks' caveats on the properties - legal orders barring changes to the ownership of the properties - were among the first of a string of court actions.
Then there were attempts by Olliver's interests to remove the caveats, Sparks' insistence they remain, a claim made against Sparks for rent owed on an office they had previously shared. The former couple were now wedded to the court process - costs mounted quickly as the number of cases grew.
"I had three lawyers," she says, with cases in the Family Court, District Court and High Court. "I ended up auctioning my jewellery [to pay for lawyers]. I didn't quite cover the amount owing."
There went the diamond earrings, the Cartier watch and everything but the engagement ring. It's still on Trade Me. During this period, Sparks wrongly borrowed money against the St Heliers properties to pay for legal fees - it would eventually be cited as a debt she still needs to repay.
At one stage, Sparks says, there were 19 separate matters before the courts. The divorce ate money, and by the end of 2015, Sparks was effectively broke and still needing a voice in court. At that point, it was all on her.
"The money my whānau had lent was exhausted. That's when I stepped up."
The $15 million trust
Has Olliver got any money?
That was the question his creditors had asked in 2009. It was the question his former wife has been asking since 2012.
It was also a question recently asked in the High Court.
In March 2016, CIT Holdings Ltd - the company which now owned the St Heliers land - went into liquidation. This was the company which Sparks had operated under her name from 2009, after Olliver went to the wall, which he then regained control of in 2012 after they split.
Demands from Inland Revenue for unpaid tax saw it placed in insolvency, but it wasn't the only debt.
By the time the court battle over the collapsed company reached the High Court in 2017, the BNZ mortgage had ballooned to $14m. There were other debts, with creditors estimated to be owed around $21m in total.
KPMG was appointed as liquidator, with director Vivian Fatupaito overseeing the company's dissolution with a bid to returning every dollar possible to creditors. Those creditors included trusts controlled by Olliver, and Sparks.
The company's main asset - virtually its only asset - was the St Heliers properties, variously valued between $15.5m and $21m.
The BNZ held the prime position with its mortgage, with the ranking rules for creditors meaning it would be paid out first. The Bankhouse Trust Ltd emerged with its own General Security Deed over a $2.4m loan it had made to CIT Holdings, meaning it was the second-ranked creditor.
As the liquidators set about working out how much money - if any - was left in the company, a buyer emerged for the St Heliers properties. It was Olliver, attempting to buy the properties for a third time.
In July 2016, Olliver, and entities associated with Olliver, made a formal offer for the properties through Olliver's companies GMO Trust Ltd and Old Schnapper Rock Ltd.
Yet there was a hook in his offer - it had to include any debts owed by Sparks to CIT Holdings. The offer of $20.1m would cover much of what was owed by the company.
The caveats Sparks had slapped on the properties, which required her claim to be resolved or removed before a sale could go ahead, had also caused difficulties.
Olliver was also frustrated at the time taken, wanting his proposed deal to be accepted by the liquidators before Christmas 2016.
When told the deal would go on hold over the Christmas break, he emailed liquidator Leon Bowker - copying in KPMG's executive chairman Ross Buckley - saying: "The purchasers (or creditors) are not interested in your holiday timeframes while interest and costs keep ticking away at thousands of dollars a day."
Sign the contract, he said, or he would appoint receivers - a move which would see Bankhouse Trust take control of the dissolution of CIT Holdings. It would shift the balance of control towards a need to meet the debts of The Bankhouse Trust, one of Olliver's entities.
KPMG didn't sign the contract quickly enough for Olliver. In March 2017, Olliver did as he had threatened to do, and appointed receivers to come over the top of the liquidators and to take control of the sales process.
The receivers - Keith Harris and Iain Nellies at Insolvency Management (Auckland) - then accepted Olliver's offer of $20m for the St Heliers' properties, bundled with Sparks' debts to CIT Holdings.
The deal never went through after KPMG went to the High Court and Court of Appeal. The court ruled that the main purpose - and possibly only purpose - in catapulting receivers into the business was to "gain access to the accounts receivable of CIT" and in particular the money owed by Sparks.
But the case also produced evidence showing details of Olliver's finances never before made public.
They included accounts for The Bankhouse Trust Ltd, established by Olliver more than a decade earlier. The financial records showed it had funded CIT Holdings for years, including the 2009-2012 period when Olliver was subject to the creditors' compromise.
It also showed the trust the company represented claimed to be worth $15m. The accounts also showed a fortune in related-party borrowing. Olliver's Bankhouse Trust was apparently owed $100m by his other companies or trusts. There was $72m owed by the Pheonix Trust, listed as the shareholder in six of Olliver's companies, and another $28.6m owed by the BBG Trust. There was also $12.2m owed by St Heliers Capital Ltd - the same company which had guaranteed the ever-increasing loan on the St Heliers' properties.
Those accounts were questioned in other evidence on the court file. A letter from KPMG's Fatupaito wrote to Olliver asking he explain "discrepancies with Bankhouse Trust's accounting records". Liquidator records claimed draft financial statements had information recorded in an inconsistent way. In one case, loans were valued at around $900,000 in one part of the accounts when they were elsewhere recorded as worth $2.6m.
In court, KPMG's lawyer Murray Tingey quizzed the receiver Keith Harris about Olliver's wealth and the 2009 creditors' compromise. Harris - in an odd twist - had been working for Guardian Trust at the time, the company which sold its mortgage on the St Heliers properties in 2009.
Tingey asked Harris if the receivers had proof that Olliver actually had the money needed to - again - buy the St Heliers' properties, given the $92.6m in debt captured by the creditors' compromise.
Tingey: "Do you know what Mr Olliver paid on his compromise?"
Harris: " I don't believe we received ... I don't believe Guardian Trust received anything from the compromise, from memory ... I don't believe anything got paid."
But if he had complied with the compromise deal, asked Tingey, then "he would have had effectively no assets at the beginning and very little assets, even if he'd earned money over the ensuing three years, from what you knew".
Harris: "What we knew, yes."
Tingey produced the list of transactions showing money transferred from The Bankhouse Trust Ltd to CIT Holdings Ltd from 2008 onwards.
He asked: "Do you have any idea how he could have made these advances when he was subject to the compromise?"
Harris did not. He pointed out the money came from Olliver, not Bankhouse, but Tingey wasn't swayed.
Tingey: "But how could Bankhouse Trust have any money? It's just an entity that he's received. He had no entities owned by him. You've just confirmed ... under his compromise he had three entities with no value. Could you give any explanation of how suddenly there could be money, well - allegedly, transferred from Bankhouse to the company?"
The beginning of the end
Sparks has turned into a campaigner. She has submitted to the Law Commission review of the Property Relationship Act, taken part in a University of Otago panel on marital property division, sent letters to Parliament and held Beehive meetings with ministerial staff and MPs with an interest.
Olliver continues to have grand designs. He had plans for a $100m-plus project with Fletcher Building for residential and commercial development around Alfriston. He also made an offer to buy the Gulf Harbour Country Club through The Kohimarama Trust Ltd in March 2017.
Fletcher Building's chief executive for residential development Steve Evans said: "Neither of those projects have gone ahead. It was predicated on him being able to buy the land, which he did not."
The Kohimarama Trust Ltd is now in liquidation, owing $30,000.
The debt is among the $42.5m to be found on the Companies Office as owed by entities controlled by Olliver which have gone into receivership or liquidation since 2009, when the creditors' compromise was struck.
In total, Companies Office records show Olliver has had nine companies in liquidation. Seven of those went into liquidation after 2009. One company - Leefield Vineyards Ltd - was in receivership from 2009 to 2018. It was returned to Olliver last year by receivers KordaMentha. After nine years of administration, the company owed around $33.7m.
Those companies liquidated since 2009 - after the creditors' compromise was struck - included $3.4m to BBG Trust Ltd, $2.8m to BBG Developments and $1.6m to The Retiring BBG Trust. Inland Revenue is noted as a creditor in a number of reports. Other reports point to the debt level being partly due to related-party loans.
During that time, there were also applications to the High Court to place Olliver's St Heliers Capital Ltd and The Bankhouse Trust Ltd into liquidation. Michael Morrison, the lawyer who made the Bankhouse application, said it was over unpaid legal fees. The debt was paid on the day the court action was to be heard.
Olliver refused to be interviewed. The Herald spoke with him once in a call which he disconnected. He did not respond to messages. An approach for an interview made through his lawyer Peter Spring was also rejected by Olliver.
He has also resisted Herald attempts to access High Court files relating to his businesses, citing the pressures that media coverage would have on the couple's children. The BNZ - which extended loans to Olliver or his entities in at least four current developments - also objected to Herald attempts to access court files.
A spokesman for the bank said it did not comment on customer's personal or financial matters. "BNZ is a responsible lender and as such we consider a range of factors when assessing lending requirements for our customers. However, relationships with Board members or any BNZ staff are not one of them."
The CIT Holdings Ltd liquidation is yet to finish. Fatupaito will not be rushed. "I take my duties very seriously and will review all matters relevant to the liquidation."
It should include the payment of the company's debt to Sparks, although there is unlikely to be enough to return the $3.6m which was loaned a decade ago.
But it might, just might, be enough to return her father's farm, mortgage free.