The 15-metre Zero, registered in Avatiu, is the subject of an international investigation after being found abandoned off Western Australia.
Five men have been arrested and face charges associated with one tonne of cocaine and ecstasy allegedly carried on the vessel.
Maritime Cook Islands ships registrar Moeroa Mamanu-Matheson has confirmed Zero was owned by a little-known company named Tomymmax Ltd, whose listed address here is Cook Islands Trust Corporation, managed by local offshore specialist Antony Will.
This was an international company and subsequently had to be registered by a licensed trust company in the Cook Islands, on a registry administered by the Financial Supervisory Commission.
(The Companies Office at the Ministry of Justice registers only domestic companies.)
The Zero was registered in the Cook Islands to Tomymmax in July 2013.
Cheryl McCarthy, acting commissioner for the Financial Supervisory Commission, said Tomymmax Ltd was struck off the Commission’s register earlier this year.
She was unable to provide the names of the company’s directors, given the ongoing nature of the criminal investigation into the matter.
Cook Islands Trust Corporation declined to comment on the yacht’s ownership for the same reason.
McCarthy explained that clients of all Cook Islands-licensed trust companies are subject to strict Know Your Customer and Customer Due Diligence rules under anti-money laundering legislation “to ensure that such information can be accessed by law enforcement if required”.
Know Your Customer rules refer to a trust company’s responsibility to identify a customer, and verify that they are who they claim to be. Where these rules apply to the beginning of a customer relationship, Customer Due Diligence checks continue throughout that relationship.
The laws exist to facilitate criminal investigations such as the one that is currently underway.
McCarthy added that all Cook Islands companies and authorities have complied promptly and completely with Australian Federal Police.
Administration of the Anti Money Laundering laws in the Cook Islands is primarily the responsibility of the Financial Intelligence Unit, a body responsible for enforcing the Financial Intelligence Unit Act 2015 and the Financial Transactions Reporting Act 2017.
Phil Hunkin, the unit’s head, said trust companies were both financial institutions and reporting institutions, so they were diligently monitored by the Unit and the Financial Supervisory Commission.
“They’re required to report suspicious activity or knowledge and assist with matters of financial misconduct,” he said. “If they have knowledge or suspicion of financial misconduct, they must make a suspicious activity report, or they commit an offence.”
Australian media have alleged secrecy laws in the Cook Islands shroud the details of the yacht’s owners and ownership, but Hunkin said there were no such laws operating in the Cooks.
“The Cook Islands is not a secrecy jurisdiction,” he said. “There are no secrecy laws here.
“A recent evaluation by the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering identified the Cook Islands as one of the most compliant jurisdictions in the world, which meets international standards on anti-money laundering and countering the finance of terrorism.”
He added that his office, like other Cook Islands authorities, had been cooperating with the Australian investigative team.
Tepaeru Herrmann, secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration, said in a press release last month that said Cook Islands officials have “rendered full cooperation to the investigation, including provision of all relevant information pertaining to the vessel and its movements”.
Australian media reported that the Zero, which was abandoned by its crew, carried one tonne of cocaine, methamphetamine, and ecstasy.