Banks accuses ex-partner of greed, cheating


Auckland mayor John Banks' private business life was laid bare in the High Court yesterday with details of a luxury car lease and allegations against a former partner of greed, cheating and money laundering.

Dressed in a dark suit, pale lilac shirt and Louis Vuitton Cup silk tie, Mr Banks spent the day in the dock at the High Court in Auckland giving evidence against his former bee pollen company.

He accused his former partner, 27-year-old lawyer Ben Cook, of greed, of systematically cheating a supplier of bee pollen, planning to import cheap bee pollen from China and laundering money through a secret bank account.

Mr Cook murmured comments and nodded in disagreement throughout the proceedings, prompting Mr Banks at one stage to ask to be heard above the "sniggering and laughing at the back of the court".

Mr Banks was summonsed to give evidence against Topline International, which stands accused of falsely marketing its Nature Bee Potentiated Bee Pollen capsules.

Mr Banks was the main shareholder of Topline shares until about two months ago when he sold his 40 per cent holding back to the company, run by father-and-son team Jeff and Ben Cook, of Remuera.

Christchurch scientist Dr Kelvin Duncan is suing Topline for allegedly falsely marketing its bee pollen as having been treated by a potentiated process he invented. His company, Cellular Improvements, has not supplied Topline with potentiated bee pollen for about a year.

Topline has filed a counter claim.

Armed with two piles of documents - and accompanied to court by his mayoral press officer Cameron Brewer - Mr Banks said after buying into the company in December 2000 he formed a view within the first week that Ben Cook was a man "out of control".

However, he told the court he had a lot of good times with Mr Cook and they shared a passion for motor cars. The company paid a $39,000 annual lease on Mr Banks' $500,000 V8 Bentley Arnage.

Mr Banks said he believed the company had an agreement to buy potentiated pollen exclusively from Cellular. He promoted the product on television and radio as "coming from the hills and valleys of sunny Nelson as potentiated by Dr Kelvin Duncan, the dean of science at Canterbury University".

However, he said he became aware that the company was also buying 'ultra' pollen, treated by a different process, from another company, Waitakere Holdings. Mr Banks said this product was $1 a bottle cheaper than Dr Duncan's product. Topline lawyer David Hurd later produced a document stating the price difference was 13 cents.

Mr Banks said this "systematic cheating" of Dr Duncan and plans to import pollen from China for sale in Australia and New Zealand were motivated by unparalleled greed by Mr Cook to feed his ferocious appetite.

The Chinese pollen plan "would enable us to make substantially more money than the substantial amount of money being generated by this business".

Mr Banks said at this point he no longer wanted to be part of the business.

Furthermore he accused Mr Cook of commissioning a "biased" consultant's report on the business which recommended he (Mr Banks) be made redundant as joint managing director and take an 80 per cent pay cut, while Mr Cook's weekly wage was "cranked up" to $10,000 a week.

This and "money laundering" by Mr Cook into a secret bank account to pay for boats and other items of personal expenditure had the effect of milking his investment in the business, Mr Banks said.

During several testy hours of cross examination from Mr Hurd, Mr Banks said when he became aware Topline was selling Waitakere pollen as potentiated pollen he raised the issue on several occasions.

But when asked by Mr Hurd to produce records recording his concerns, Mr Banks was unable to do so.

"Very rarely did we keep records," he said.

Mr Hurd said if Mr Cook, who has already given evidence in the case, was allowed to be recalled he would tell the court that at no point had Topline purchased bee pollen from China or attempted to sell Chinese pollen in New Zealand. The company was investigating the possibility of using Chinese pollen to supply overseas markets.

Mr Hurd said the so-called secret bank account operated by Mr Cook was an old one from Nature Bee days. A Chinese export customer had paid money into the account and the proceeds had been reconciled through Mr Cooks' current account to Topline.

Mr Banks described the explanation as a "joke".



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