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Officials meet with questionable ‘Al Atas Group’

By Helen Greig RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Sept. 16, 2010) - Cabinet ministers have exposed themselves to embarrassment after meeting representatives of a Singapore-based company that are now suspected of trying to scam government.

CI News contacted Finance Minister Wilkie Rasmussen who said he was concerned that the infrastructure funding proposal was a scam but checks were still being carried out.

"It might be the most ridiculous proposal I’ve ever seen," he said.

Rasmussen said he had asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to send the Forum Secretariat a message to warn other Forum Island Countries to be cautious in dealing with the ‘Al Atas Group,’ reportedly owned by Sheikh Muhammad Adnan Al Atas.

The minister said the Financial Intelligence Unit is also carrying out checks on the company and its three representatives who met with Cabinet last week.

"Cabinet has fallen victim to its policy to meet with whoever it wants to meet with."

He said he had serious concerns about the whole thing when the men tried to contact him in New Zealand and tried to ambush him at the airport VIP lounge on his way back to Rarotonga.

"I refused to see them at the time. They arrived here and met with the Prime Minster (Jim Marurai) and minister (William) Heather. They targeted the finance and infrastructure ministers. I raised some concern in Cabinet about it but then it seems the PM called them to make a presentation to Cabinet the next day."

The minister says heated discussions were held between Cabinet and the representatives – Cook Islander Bill Amosa and Al Atas reps Australian Michael Cahill and John Davies – as some snide remarks were exchanged.

"I had serious concerns. This just reflects the looseness of cabinet’s policy on who it meets. We should have checks on people."

Rasmussen revealed that Cahill refused to answer cabinet’s questions about the ‘too good to be true’ proposal and told them that two ministers would have to go to Singapore to meet with the ‘Sheikh’ who would explain it to them further.

Al Atas Group’s proposal was that government sign over, through a minister, a ‘medium term note’ being the collective value of the country’s assets. Around NZ$500 million [US$367 million] would be ‘traded’ on the stock market and Al Atas would guarantee a profit of 10 percent (NZ$50 million, US$37 million) a week over 40 weeks and then split this with government – an enticing NZ$25 million [US$18 million] a week for government.

The eight-page proposal looks a lot like your run-of-the-mill email scam.

"The process that the Al Atas group has developed for use by the governments has been proven to be highly successful in providing a win/win structure for all parties to achieve their funding requirements within a fixed time frame," says the proposal.

Cahill and his colleagues also reportedly met with some opposition party MPs and were assisted in setting up their meetings by locals.

Cabinet’s meeting with alleged international scammers may have eroded its credibility, but minister Heather’s chief executive Tere Taio maintains that the ministers have every right to meet with whoever they want to meet with.

He said there were processes in place for background checks to be done in relation to the Al Atas proposal but that government has no policy on carrying out any checks to avoid exposing cabinet to potential scammers before they meet with them.

Yesterday locals were sending in the results of their own internet searches to CI News which revealed that Al Atas and other company names it uses have been accused of running scams in other countries.

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