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Is the public sector pulling its weight in the fight against money laundering and terrorism financing?

Public Policy / news
Is the public sector pulling its weight in the fight against money laundering and terrorism financing?
Beehive money swirl
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By Gareth Vaughan

How seriously is the public sector taking the fight against money laundering and terrorism financing?

This question comes up in a new episode of's Of Interest podcast, featuring barrister and solicitor Fiona Hall and anti-money laundering auditor and consultant Martin Dilly.

In a recent article the two raised concerns about impending job cuts to the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) team tasked with supervising compliance with the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering Financing of Terrorism Act (AML/CFT Act). 

Dilly says the DIA proposal to cut 40% of AML/CFT staff "gives us concern that that's going to affect their ability to enforce and supervise this act." There's also concern whether the next evaluation of New Zealand by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental body that sets international standards and is considered the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, will show NZ technically compliant with FATF's recommendations, and whether we're effective in supervising the entities that must comply with the law.

"I have heard some reporting entities clapping their hands with joy if they're supervised by the DIA, but it's not the good reporting entities. And I like to think that most businesses are good businesses that want to comply with the law. And the risk you have is, yes, sure, if there are far fewer DIA investigators, you're less likely to get a knock on your door. But the problem is, if you do get a knock on your door, you now might be being investigated by someone who really doesn't have a good handle on the legislation, let alone a good understanding of your business. And you are going to be in a much worse position," Hall says.

Dilly made an Official Information Act (OIA) request to DIA in an attempt to get more information, which he says "shows a pattern of under resourcing of the AML team within the DIA."

 "They were essentially budgeted to have 55 staff members. That's what they had determined was necessary...The information provided shows at no point did they ever hit 55 staff. They've been consistently below that. In 2022, they only had 37 staff instead of 55... So the question becomes, why is that?"

"One of the other questions I specifically asked was, 'has any of the budget been reallocated from the AML team to other areas of the Department of Internal Affairs?' One of the things they talk about is they don't talk about reallocation. They use the terminology 'a permanent reprioritisation of constant underspend.' And my question is, 'well, what does constant underspend mean?' Why would you be underspending your budget in an area where you are tasked with implementing AML and educating and supervising these new entities [lawyers, accountants and real estate agents]?" Dilly asks.

Other issues Hall and Dilly cite include different agendas and lack of consistency to AML/CFT Act supervision between the DIA, and NZ's two other AML/CFT Act supervisors, the Reserve Bank and Financial Markets Authority.

The two are hopeful Associate Minister of Justice Nicole McKee's proclamation that reforming the AML/CFT Act is "one of my priorities this parliamentary term," could lead to improvement. They would both like to see a shift to a single standalone supervisor.

"I think the results from the [DIA] OIA show that if it's within other ministries that you cannot trust them to not reallocate budget, whatever language they want to put on that. The other point I would really like to see is a move back to a more risk based approach. The Act itself is risk based, which essentially means that we accept that people have limited resources and you are supposed to direct those resources towards the areas of highest risk in your business," says Dilly.

Hall would like to see better supervision of the supervisors.

The two also have many tales of frustration and contradiction. Hall gives the example of a client that collects school donations, arranges school lunches, the school uniform shop, and sells tickets to school shows, who has been deemed high risk of money laundering.

"I sat with the Minister and said, 'look, how does buying two pairs of grey shorts from a school uniform shop ever get anywhere near, I mean, this is where I'm going to launder my money?' It is ridiculous."

On the flip side she points out the likes of Ticketmaster, selling tickets to shows, aren't considered reporting entities. And neither are travel agents who have trust accounts and manage funds.

"So we have this real disconnect, in my view, even about who is and isn't a reporting entity," Hall says.

She also questions how customer due diligence is done in the real estate sector.

"Their customer is the vendor, it's not the buyer, which I always find so interesting because that's where the money is. And often a property's been bought years and years before, and suddenly, you know, the vendor's been asked to prove how they purchased this and how they funded it, and there is resistance."

There are also personal anecdotes. Dilly says the bank he has been a customer of for more than 40 years asked him about an account he has had for 25 years.

"They have full visibility of every one of my financial transactions. And I was interrogated as to what my plans were for that account. And my thinking was why? Why would you rely on anything I tell you when you've got 25 years of data on my behaviour? If I was an actual money launderer, why would I give you a straight story?"

And here's Hall; "I was at the supermarket checkout and I'd been having a particularly trying day for poor entities [clients] that I didn't think should be captured [by the AML/CFT Act] at all. And I was standing in line and I looked up and I was behind a whole lot of gang members...They were buying lots of meat, lots of alcohol, and out came the wads of cash. And I thought, 'my poor clients who are spending all their money trying to comply, and really there's the money that we probably are looking for right in front of me."

Much more is discussed in the podcast including why the public should care about the fight against money laundering and terrorism financing and the impact of it, the purpose of it, concerns NZ could end up on an international grey list, concerns over whether the Police Financial Intelligence Unit is reactive and doesn't have the capacity to deal with all the suspicious activity reports it receives, quick wins with asset seizure where there's a lower threshold from a legal perspective, and more.

*You can find all episodes of the Of Interest podcast here.

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