30 May 2016

IRD won't confirm AK law firm under scrutiny

7:41 pm on 30 May 2016

Inland Revenue has declined to say whether it's investigating an Auckland law firm linked to the exiled leader of Kazakhstan in the leaked Panama Papers.

Akezhan Kazhegeldin's mansion in Belgravia, London

Exiled Kazakhstan Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin's mansion in Belgravia, London. Photo: Supplied

The Panama Papers reveal the family of an exiled Kazakhstan prime minister convicted of corruption is using New Zealand law firm Cone Marshall to help them hide the ownership of their $15 million London home.

Cone Marshall has denied there's anything improper in the business structure that was set up.

Prime Minister John Key said IRD will be looking carefully at the law firm under anti-money laundering rules.

However, the tax agency said it would not comment about specific taxpayers.

The anti-money laundering rules are regulated by the Department of Internal Affairs, and Cone Marshall does not appear on its registered list of reporting entities.

Geoffrey Cone, a partner in the company, said trust companies report to the department under the anti-money laundering regulations.

He said lawyers report separately under the Financial Transactions Reporting Act to police and the Law Society under their code of ethics and the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act.

"As a matter of good practice our law firm reports voluntarily under the AML (anti-money laundering) regulations", said Mr Cone.

The extent of this country's involvement in the global money-go-round and intricate asset management and protection industry is showcased by more than 61,000 documents in the leak of papers from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca - known as the Panama Papers.

Prime Minister John Key at a media standup following the release of Budget 2016.

Prime Minister John Key Photo: RNZ/Elliott Childs

Mr Key said New Zealand's reputation was in good shape and the first part of the anti-money laundering regulations was already in place.

"We certainly need to pass part two of that and there's no question that, as a result of the debate around the Panama Papers and the sort of wider public debate globally about this issue, we're certainly trying to push part two of that through as quickly as we can."

Earlier, Mr Key told Morning Report he did not know the details of the new revelations from the Panama Papers about the New Zealand law firm, but said they were only allegations at this stage.

Labour party leader Andrew Little said the latest New Zealand connections in the Panama Papers put this country's reputation further at risk.

"New Zealand is seen as a good place for this sort of activity. We are seen as a tax haven and it's because our laws and our rules allow this to happen."

However, Mr Key said Cone Marshall is subject to New Zealand's anti-money laundering regulations and the firm would be scrutinised by IRD officials.

"Not only will they, they have the complete legal authority to do so, and actually the responsibility.

"Under part one (of the Anti-Money Laundering Act 2009) these firms get audited every two years to make sure they comply with the law which is, know your client, know the source of funds," Mr Key said.

Panama Papers NZ - Click here for full coverage

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Finance Minister Bill English. Photo: RNZ/Elliott Childs

And Finance Minister Bill English said New Zealand has strict tax rules in place to ensure it is not being used to hide wealth.

Mr English told Morning Report the government is taking steps to ensure the disclosure rules are fit for purpose, and the country has a number of information swapping agreements to ensure errant taxpayers in other countries are dealt with.

"We don't have slack international tax rules, we have among the most developed in the developed world," he said.

Mr English said the government was focussed on supporting the Shewan Inquiry, and on international information exchange with other countries.

The government has ordered a review on disclosure rules covering foreign trusts to be carried out by tax specialist John Shewan amid claims that New Zealand is a tax haven.

London-based anti-corruption agency Global Witness said New Zealand needed to tighten its company and tax rules to ensure it does not get a reputation as a tax haven.

A campaigner with the agency, Eleanor Nicol, said New Zealand registered companies have been used for illegal purposes by some in the past.

She said moves by the government toward greater disclosure were welcome.

"The devil, as always, will be in the detail.

"We really need to see this being put into action otherwise New Zealand does risk becoming know as a hub for this kind of activity," Ms Nicol said.

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The Consortium of Investigative Journalists and German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung gave RNZ News, One News, and investigative journalist Nicky Hager joint access to the papers. This is the second in a series of reports on what has been uncovered.