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SFO scrapped for organised crime unit

Published: 6:49PM Tuesday September 11, 2007 Source: ONE News

The high-powered watchdog responsible for hunting down and prosecuting New Zealand's worst white collar criminals is to be scrapped and taken over by a new police organised crime unit.

The Serious Fraud Office, which investigates fraud cases over $500,000, was established in 1990 after the sharemarket crash uncovered substantial white collar crime activity.

Now, in 12 months, as part of new strategy to fight organised crime, it will cease to exist.

The government is incorporating it into a new Organised Crime Agency (OCA) to be set up within the police force.

Police Minister Annette King says organised crime is becoming increasingly complex.

"We're looking for one agency that can focus on organised crime and the SFO's skills become part of that," says King.

"Quite clearly, we need to increase our response to be forearmed to meet all possible contingencies. The proposed OCA will focus on preventing, investigating and disrupting serious organised crime rather than on street level offending."

The agency will investigate everything from gangs, cyber crime, identity fraud, drug dealing, paeadophilia networks and terrorist activity.

"The actual organisation itself will be taking particular responsibility for the overall strategic direction, setting the priorities," says King.

The SFO has had a rocky history.

In 1994 it was embroiled in allegations of corruption by Winston Peters relating to the Winebox Inquiry. And more recently it has come under scrutiny for some high profile courtroom defeats including the acquittal of former Immigration Minister Tuariki Delamare on fraud and forgery charges.

The Police Association, who has been calling for more action against gangs and organised crime, welcomes the new agency.

But association president Greg O'Connor says front line officers must see the fruits of its work.

"If they see that the local Mongrel Mob, the local Hells Angels are in some way depowered, disenfranchised by this, it will have worked," he says.

O'Connor says what is not needed is for it turn into just another agency that will suck police staff away from frontline duties.

He says the agency must be newly resourced.

The National Party are approaching the decision to scrap the SFO in favour of the new agency, with caution.

"I think the public could rightly be raising their eyebrows and saying 'look is this just another quango, just another body, another name' it's not gonna be that impressive," says National's law and order spokesman Simon Power.

Critics also say law change is needed to give the agency the teeth it needs to do its job effectively.