The Government is reviewing the “good character” requirements for overseas investors in a move that could impact Russian oligarchs and wealthy individuals who have investments here.
POLITIK understands that Treasury is leading the current review of the relevant part of the Overseas Investment Act.
The number one target will be Aleksander Abramov, an Oligarch with an estimated wealth of $NZ11 billion who owns a $50 million lodge in the Bay of Islands and is a long-time ally of President Vladimir Putin.
Tightening up the legislation could make it possible to withdraw the approval for him and other Oligarchs to continue to own their New Zealand property.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said yesterday that Cabinet had discussed further advice on how it could ensure “that we are really targeting those actors in particular who we want to put pressure on as a result of this invasion in Ukraine.”
“So we’ve got a couple of streams of advice going at the moment relating to the Overseas Investment Act, but also whether or not we could design something specifically targeted at Russia.
“Our view at the moment is changing.”
Though New Zealand is working in tandem with the United States and other Five Eyes partners on its list of people it wants to sanction, it does not have legislation that easily allows those to be put into effect unless the UN Security Council has agreed to the sanctions.
That will not happen; not only will Russia use its veto to stop sanctions, but the Chinese Embassy in Wellington yesterday distributed a statement from its Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, saying that China had always disapproved of wilfully invoking the UN Charter powers to authorise the use of force and sanctions in United Nations Security Council resolution.
“We want to make sure that we’re impactful, that we act quickly, and we continue to send a strong message,” said Ardern.
Abramov’s history in New Zealand is typical of the relaxed way in which the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) has regarded its role in approving overseas investments.
In 2009 the Abramov Family Trust got OIO approval to buy 215 hectares of beachside land at Helena Bay about 14km north of Whananaki, where NZ First leader Winston Peters has a bach.
The trust bought the land off an entity called the RBO Trust, and the OIO said the application, which said Abramov would build a high-quality residence/lodge and ancillary buildings on the land.
“The Abramov Family Trust claims the lodge will be used by the owner and may be made available on a commercial basis to wealthy domestic and international clientele,” the OIO said.
“In addition to the construction of the residence/lodge, the Abramov Family Trust will improve the farming business by converting the farming operation from stock fattening to stock breeding. In addition, the Abramov Family Trust has committed to spending $250,000 to improve the quality of pasture, fencing, stockyards, troughs and service tracks.
“The Abramov Family Trust also intends to carry out a programme of environmental and historic preservation initiatives.”
On that basis, the OIO said the investment was approved because it would bring “substantial and identifiable benefit to New Zealand”.
In 2915 Abramov got approval to lease another 88 hectares of farmland at Helena Bay from a trust associated with the Ngati Wai iwi whose rohe Helena Bay is in. So is Whananaki, and Peters is affiliated to Ngati Wai.
Another Abramov company also got OIO approval in 2019 to buy urban land on which it developed a number of houses, some of which were sold to Kiwibuild.
But throughout this process, no audit seems to have been made of Abramov’s credentials.
Documents made public by the Sarajevo-based Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project in 2017 reveal that he had links to a Cyprus based money laundering operation and that two companies linked with him appeared “deeply entwined with the Troika Laundromat, a network of shell companies that operated from 2006 to 2013, moving at least $US4.6 billion, enabling its users to hide assets, evade taxes or launder money”.
The claims were referred to the OIO by the media, who said they would investigate them, but obviously, nothing has happened as a consequence.
In January 2018 in Russia, Putin awarded him the Decoration of Beneficence for his charity work, but at the same time, he was listed on a US Treasury report of Oligarchs who might be sanctioned after the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Despite this, and despite its legislation requiring people being given investment approval to be of good character, the OIO approved further investment in land from him a year later.
The whole question of the character of overseas investors surfaced again with the case of the American NBC breakfast TV host, Matt Lauer, who in 2017 got approval to purchase the Crown lease to the 10,000 hectares Hunter Valley Station bordering Lake Hawea.
Documents obtained under the Official Information Act show that the OIO “The OIO conducted “open-source background checks on the individuals Matt Lauer and his wife)… and found nothing relevant to the criterion.”
In other words, they found him to be of good character.
But in November 2017, On November 29, 2017, NBC News announced that Lauer’s employment had been terminated after an unidentified female NBC employee reported that Lauer had sexually harassed her during the 2014 Winter Olympics and that the harassment continued after they returned to New York.
An OIO spokesperson said the office was aware of the allegations was speaking to Lauer’s representative about them.
In 2019 OIO group manager Vanessa Horne said that for an overseas investor, the requirement to be of good character was ongoing.
“After getting consent to acquire an asset, the conditions of consent require investors to remain of good character in regards to their fitness to continue to hold the asset.”
The OIO said it was keeping a close eye on Mr Lauer, who had been accused of – but not charged with – rape.
It might be expected that the review of the good character clause will now be given some urgency and that it will be tightened up to cover cases like both Abramov and Lauer.
It is also clear that the Government is looking at other options with which it might target investments and individuals in New Zealand or with New Zealand links.
“At present, we work closely with our international partners in an effort to make sure that we have up to date information and that information sharing is occurring and that we have a list that reflects those who we need to be targeting,” Ardern said yesterday.
She said no options had been taken off the table.
“We are continuing to seek advice on other actions beyond what we’ve already done now,” she said.
“Much of what we have done is very much in keeping with the rest of the world.
“And our statements against Russia have been strong, which is what New Zealanders would expect.”
National is calling on Ardern to expel the Russian Ambassador. But that would mean the Russians would retaliate by expelling our Ambassador in Moscow, Sarah Welsh, who might have some difficulties leaving the country now that the EU has shut air space to Russian owned or registered aircraft.
And Ardern yesterday was concerned about the impact that might have on the ability to provide consular assistance to New Zealanders in Russia.
“We haven’t taken any final decisions in that regard (the expulsion of the Ambassador) and one of the things that we continue to consider is that we have to think about the knock-on impacts for those in the region as well,” she said.
“It means that you wipe out your ability to provide consular assistance on the ground to New Zealanders.”