'I'm not a crook': Businessman criticised by Finance Minister defends his actions

Author
Jason Walls, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 26 Apr 2020, 4:05PM
Finance Minister Grant Robertson during the All of Government Covid-19 update. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Finance Minister Grant Robertson during the All of Government Covid-19 update. Photo / Mark Mitchell

'I'm not a crook': Businessman criticised by Finance Minister defends his actions

Author
Jason Walls, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 26 Apr 2020, 4:05PM

The businessman at the centre of a stoush with the Finance Minister insists he's "not a crook", after Grant Robertson condemned his use of the wage subsidy scheme.

Black Steel owner Tony Black received $239,000 through the scheme but has only paid $80,000 to his staff.

He said he's keeping the remaining almost $160,000 to help pay staff costs over the coming months, as his business has taken a sizable hit.

If there is anything left by April next year – the end of his financial year – Black said he would pay that back to the Government.

"I have been made out to look like a crook and I am not," he told the Herald.

This morning, Stuff reported that Black would not be paying back the money.

"I don't believe there's any legislation in place to enforce anyone to give it back. It was just a stupid idea from the beginning from our Labour Government," he told Stuff.

"I'm at a loss as to why the Government gave away so much money in a lolly scramble."

Robertson said Black's comments were "out of step with most Kiwi businesses", which are abiding by the wage subsidy rules.

"Mr Black's comments seem somewhat confused and contradictory. The money is there to support the wages of his employees, and he says that is what he is going to use it for."

Robertson also pointed out there are legal repercussions for business owners who abuse the wage scheme.

But Black told the Herald that because of the uncertainty, he's holding onto the leftover money in case he needs it to pay his staff down the track.

He said his business has been set back considerably – "if that continues, I will need that [leftover] money".

"If it's not needed and we don't use it, I've got no issue with that."

The staffing costs include covering the cost of extra sick days his employees, or their kids, might take over and above the five days legally required by law.

"I'm going to have to be paying out to these guys to maintain their livelihoods," Black said.

Robertson said 99.9 per cent of businesses that have taken up the scheme were behaving responsibly.

"As we have previously stated, all applicants for the wage subsidy know that they could be subject to audit and that anyone found to have provided false or misleading information can face penalties."

Those found in breach could face up to seven years in jail, according to the Ministry of Social Development.

"We have had overwhelming feedback that the wage subsidy scheme was a lifeline for businesses as they have navigated this difficult period."

So far, more than $10 billion from the scheme has been paid out benefiting 1.6 million workers.

The Government has more than 100 auditors combing through financial returns of businesses that have taken up the scheme, looking for evidence of fraud.