Cricket, political scandals tarnish New Zealand's image as nation free from corruption

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If any country has a squeaky-clean image, it is New Zealand. It's a place where police officers won't even accept freebies from burger joints. It's been ranked the world's least corrupt nation for eight years straight by the watchdog group Transparency International.

Recent scandals in business, politics and sports, however, may put that reputation under threat. Some observers say the South Pacific nation's sterling record for fairness may have made it complacent and less watchful for shady behavior.

Perhaps the biggest blow to the national psyche comes from bribery allegations against several top cricket players. Former New Zealand team player Lou Vincent last week was charged with 14 offences under the England Cricket Board's anti-corruption code for alleged fixing in two English county matches. He's hasn't denied the allegations and said in a statement he "remains accountable for his actions."

Investigations continue into other players, including former national hero Chris Cairns, who denies any wrongdoing.

In politics, one lawmaker, John Banks, is on trial, fighting allegations he failed to properly report donations. Another, Maurice Williamson, recently resigned his ministerial portfolios after acknowledging he improperly contacted police about their investigation into an associate and party donor who was facing assault charges.

In business, the Serious Fraud Office is investigating kiwifruit exporter Zespri, after a subsidiary company and an independent distributor in China were each found guilty of smuggling, for underreporting imports and avoiding millions of dollars in duties.

The fraud office has also recently secured convictions against 18 directors and officials from eight finance companies that faltered or failed after the 2008 global financial crisis.

Bill Hodge, an associate professor of law at the University of Auckland, said part of the problem may be that New Zealand has opened up trade and sporting ties to other countries, exposing people to corrupt practices from abroad.

"It may be a sign of New Zealand's naivete and a wake-up call," he said.

Transparency International uses expert opinion and polling to compile its annual Corruption Perception Index, which scores each nation on its perceived level of public-sector corruption.

Countries plagued by war and poverty typically rank bottom of the CPI list. New Zealand has ranked first every year since 2006, though in some cases it has shared the top spot. Several of the country's recent scandals have emerged since the last assessment.

Suzanne Snively, who chairs the watchdog group's New Zealand chapter, said the scandals could affect how New Zealand is perceived and ranked. But she added that the allegations are less important than the systems in place to fight corruption. She said New Zealand appears to have been proactive by, for instance, introducing new anti-corruption rules in sports.

Snively said it recently completed a study of New Zealand's integrity systems.

"The evidence we collected showed that, on balance, it deserves its reputation and has strong views on corruption and strong integrity," Snively said. "The underlying problem we found, though, was there's an awful lot of complacency. Perhaps the CPI measure, over the years, has made people think, 'We don't really need to work hard at this.'"

An October report on bribery by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said it had "serious concerns" about New Zealand's lack of enforcement over business people who may be offering bribes in foreign countries.

"There are further concerns that outdated perceptions that New Zealand individuals and companies do not engage in bribery may undermine detection efforts," the report noted.

Hodge, the law professor, said he's worked with New Zealand police officers on professional standards issues and has been struck by their lofty aspirations and low tolerance for graft.

"They won't even take a free burger," he said.

When it comes to match-fixing, New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key said the government is taking steps to tighten laws.

"If the allegations are halfway correct, it's an extremely serious situation," he said.

But he said he didn't think it would necessarily tarnish the country's reputation.

"I think it would reflect on those individuals and actually not necessarily on either the sport of cricket in New Zealand or New Zealand as a whole," he said.