14 Jun 2019

New Zealand investigates Samoan church with cryptocurrency links

6:29 am on 14 June 2019

New Zealand authorities are investigating a prominent Samoan church with links to a cryptocurrency labelled as a fraudulent pyramid scheme.

bitcoin onecoin ripple on wooden background and copy space, cryptocurrency money exchange investment concept.

Photo: 123RF

The Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) probe into the Samoan Independent Seventh Day Adventist Church (SISDAC) - which has branches in New Zealand, Australia and Samoa - comes amid a seperate investigation by Samoa's Central Bank into the church.

While the DIA investigation, which is being conducted under the Charities Act 2005, is not focused on the church's links to the cryptocurrency OneCoin - which US and Samoan authorities have labelled a "hybrid ponzi-pyramid scheme" - it has uncovered information about OneCoin, the department said.

In Samoa, where the trading of OneCoin was banned last year, the Central Bank has said churches in New Zealand, including SISDAC, used the cryptocurrency to funnel millions of dollars into the country, circumventing the ban.

The Central Bank investigation, which is focusing on whether Samoan money laundering laws were breached by OneCoin and several individuals and businesses including SISDAC, was launched after the bank was handed a report by New Zealand police into OneCoin activities earlier this year.

The Bulgaria-based OneCoin, which advertises itself as an educational resource and a safe and transparent digital investment, has denied any wrongdoing.

While details of the DIA investigation were not disclosed by the department, SISDAC's Auckland branch has been investing church funds into OneCoin since as early as 2017, according to one person who worked as an independent contractor for the cryptocurrency and said they had helped set up the church's OneCoin accounts.

Unlike in Samoa, buying or selling OneCoin in New Zealand is not illegal and even if SISDAC did invest in the cryptocurrency it is unclear how this would affect the current investigations.

Still, according to one person who attended a special general meeting of SISDAC's Auckland branch mid-last year, chief executive Willie Papu told the meeting that the church had invested $NZ3.5 million into OneCoin in case its assets were frozen during the DIA investigation. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity.

An Auckland-based minister with SISDAC, Tafilelea Fa'avae Gagamoe, said the church had held meetings with members where they were updated on the outcome of the DIA investigation, but would not directly address the record of Mr Papu's comments.

"We reserve the right to make comment on the aforementioned as we await the outcome of current investigations," he said in an emailed response to questions, adding that the investigation was in its final stages.

In May, SISDAC issued a statement saying it had "never knowingly participated or colluded in any way shape or form with any individual or organisation" to launder money.

The former contractor, who also requested anonymity, said their work with SISDAC was facilitated by Sina Hunt, a New Zealand woman who was central to establishing OneCoin's presence in the country.

Her role as a key OneCoin player has been corroborated by three people in interviews who said Ms Hunt convinced them and others to invest in OneCoin.

Ms Hunt, who did not respond to phone calls or text messages, also played a major role in convincing SISDAC officials to invest in One Coin, according to the former contractor. Mr Gagamoe said Ms Hunt was a member of SISDAC but declined to comment further.

During 2017, Ms Hunt established a OneCoin "headquarters" within one of SISDAC's Auckland branches, where she held regular meetings with church officials to discuss and facilitate investments into OneCoin, the former contractor said.

The person, who left their role at the end of 2017, said that at that time there were at least a dozen OneCoin accounts through which SISDAC had invested church funds, some amounting to several thousand dollars.

Both Mr Papu and Mr Gagamoe, the church minister, appeared on stage at a OneCoin conference held at an Auckland event centre in 2017 which was organised by Sina Hunt and was used to pitch the cryptocurrency to a room of would-be investors, according to a video recording of the event reviewed by RNZ Pacific. It was unclear if the pair were representing the church in attending the event.

Mr Gagamoe said he had emceed "quite a few events over my lifetime", including the SkyCity event, which he facilitated the agenda and program for and delivered "the usual edgy dry sarcastic comedic banter."

In 2017, Mr Papu's daughter, Elizabeth, was sentenced by an Auckland district court to two years and nine months' imprisonment for taking around $NZ1.6 million in funds from SISDAC while she was a finance administrator there and using the funds at a casino.

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