Are you a ‘drug dealer’? What the wife of workplace fatality boss was asked after police froze assets

The boss accused of putting profit before safety has told the High Court of his wife being accosted and accused of being a drug dealer after police used “proceeds of crime” legal orders to freeze assets belonging to him, his family and their company.

In documents released by the court, Ron Salter, 67, said most people associated such restraining orders with drugs and gangs “and certainly serious and ongoing criminal activity”.

“Natalie (Salter, his wife) has been accosted while shopping for groceries in Countdown Pukekohe by people branding her a ‘drug dealer’,” he told the court.

He said the company’s drivers were “constantly being asked whether the restraining orders are related to drugs”.

Instead, Salter had freezing orders placed on his personal, family and business assets after the 2015 death of Jamey Lee Bowring, 24, who was killed at the Wiri, South Auckland, headquarters of Salters Cartage Ltd.

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The company collects and recycles waste fuel. Bowring was welding on a 96,000 storage tank without proper certification and wrongly labelled diesel – it contained far more volatile substances – when it exploded, causing his death.

Salter was sentenced to 4½ months’ home detention after pleading guilty in 2017 to 12 charges of breaching health and safety and hazardous substances laws. He and the company were ordered to pay about $400,000 in fines and reparations

The High Court proceedings is at an early stage with a judgment due on whether police should give an undertaking to cover the cost its freezing orders has had one the business should its case fail. It is believed to be the first time the proceeds of crime legislation has been used in a health and safety case.

In a detailed affidavit, Salter said the police action was unexpected after his conviction on WorkSafe charges and it had hurt the company, costing it work and lowering its value.

“I do not know why the Commissioner (of Police) waited four years after the accident to obtain restraining orders or why, if he intends to apply for forfeiture, he has not yet done so.”

Considerable “hard work and money” had gone into the business since the fatal incident. He said if he had known the police action lay ahead he “may well have done things differently”, including selling the business at market value then dealing with the police case.

Salter said the death of Bowring “will always provoke strong feelings in the community and I face up to that”.

“However, the restraining orders have made that current again, as if it has just happened and represents the company’s operations now.”

In the year of the fatality, Salter said he had been ready to sell the business and retire.

After Bowring’s death, he said he considered again selling it again but did not want four decades of building a business to then have it “defined by its failures”.

He said he had believed the company’s health and safety plan was “industry leading” ahead of the incident.

“Although it was difficult to accept at first, there were issues and I had to face up to that. Personally, and professionally, it was a shock and a considerable fall from the position I thought the business held.”

It took six months and $1.5 million to repair and upgrade the company’s equipments, which included new processing facilities that increased production.

He said he was also concerned the purchase price would have been reduced because of the physical and reputational damage to the company and prospective buyers knowing he was a “distressed vendor”.

After four years of rebuilding the business, “the goal remained to sell the business and retire as I had planned to do before the accident”, he said. The sale again didn’t go ahead and he was now concerned when it would be sold.

He said “the restraining orders mean that is not possible” and it was uncertain whether it would be possible to sell it before the case was resolved. He said he was “concerned that I will no longer be here given my health issues, or at least no longer be in a position to enjoy it”.

Salter said the restraining orders had harmed the ability of the business to grow and meet the challenge of its competitors.

He said he was also concerned that Salters Cartage Ltd would no longer enjoy its leading position in the market because it was unable to invest in and develop the business while the restraining orders were in place.

Salter said he believed the “stigma” associated with the restraining orders had cost the company work. In 2017, the company played a major role cleaning fuel spilled from the ruptured Refinery NZ pipeline yet wasn’t asked to contest a tender for the same work at its Marsden Point base last year. He said the work was worth between $2m and $3m.

He said there was stigma to be expected as a result of the incident that cost Bowring his life but – until the freezing orders – that had no longer been a “commercial factor” in attracting business.

He said the company’s bank had cancelled its overdraft after the restraining orders with some respite coming only to meet the impact of Covid-19. The cost of meeting the proceeds of crime case and the forfeiture hearing to come also loomed over the company, he said.

Salter said he had dedicated much of his life to building the business and often worked from 6am until 9pm, regularly putting more than 80 hours a week into the company.

He said the company operated 24/7 and he was still on the roster to take calls if waste oil needed collection – even driving trucks.

“The restraining orders have effectively paralysed (Salters Cartage Ltd). It cannot be operate as it should, and with the required flexibility, and it cannot be sold for its market value.”

Salter said it wasn’t clear when the restraining orders would turn to forfeiture orders – the point at which police would move to legally take money it claimed was unlawfully obtained. By that time, he said, the company would have lost income, missed opportunities and lost value.

The court file released to the Herald also contained details of Salter’s criminal record, attached to an affidavit entered into the case by a detective with the police’s asset recovery unit.

It shows Salter was charged with careless driving causing death in July, 1987. In October the following year, he was convicted and sentenced at the Hamilton District Court to six months’ periodic detention and banned from driving for 18 months.

The conviction followed others in 1974 and 1985 that he had “operated a vehicle carelessly” and one in 1983 that he had “operated a vehicle inconsiderately”. He was convicted again in 1991 for inconsiderate driving and in June 2008 for driving dangerously while at twice the breath-alcohol limit.

Documents show the Commissioner of Police alleged the Salters committed “significant criminal activity”, sacrificing regulatory compliance in “pursuit of profit”. The period of time in the police’s scope was 2012 to 2016 during which the company earned income from sales of recycled oil, and from shipping or storing hazardous substances, when doing so breached breach of health and safety laws.

Financial information in the case was protected by court order with black stripes across columns of figures.

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