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BFCSA: Australian Tax Office in chaos as Deputy Commissioner Crantons charged.

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ATO chaos as deputy Cranston charged

The Australian 12:00am May 19, 2017

Brad Norington, Paul Maley


The Australian Taxation Office is in an unprecedented crisis, with some of its tax-avoidance investigations in jeopardy, a deputy commissioner facing charges­ and four of its offic­ials stood down, amid an alleged $165 million tax-fraud ­syndicate scandal.

As nine people faced court yesterday over the alleged conspiracy, Australian Federal Police are set to lay a swath of new charges over the scandal. Deputy ATO commissioner Michael Cranston faces two charges of abusing his position as a public official by seeking inform­ation about the tax office’s investig­ation into the alleged tax fraud involving his son, Adam.

Adam Cranston, 30, and his sister­ Lauren, 24, were among those charged yesterday for allegedly defrauding the commonwealth by skimming the funds of a company that provided payroll services for large corporate clients.

The AFP says Michael Cranston was not part of the criminal syndicate but acted on his son’s reques­t to seek information about the activities of Plutus Payroll.

The Australian understands that Michael Cranston, one of the nation’s most senior ATO officials responsible for leading tax evasion investigations into multinational companies and wealthy individ­uals, was allegedly intercepted by a police phone tap discussing the request with his son.

It is alleged he then directed two tax ­office sub­ordinates to access ATO inform­ation about an audit into Plutus. Four tax office staffers are believed to have been stood down, including assistant commissioners Tony Poulakis and Scott Burrows.

Senator Nick Xenophon warned last night the scandal could jeopardise ongoing investigations. “As shocking as these revel­ations are, the biggest ­shockwaves could well be the ­impact this could have on the Panama Papers ­investigations, its international implications, and what this could mean for a multi-billion-dollar tax-­avoidance investigation — whether this, in any way, could taint or impede any prosecutions,” he said.

Malcolm Turnbull said the scandal was “very much regretted’’ but he congratulated police for their work. “People who break our laws — whether it is endeavouring to defraud the commonwealth and the tax system, whether it is plannin­g terror plots, whether it’s trafficking in drugs — our police, our agencies will ... catch them, prosecute them and bring the full weight of the law down to bear on them,” the Prime Minister said.

The scandal is the biggest to involve­ a senior tax office official since former assistant commissioner Nick Petroulias was jailed for two years in 2008 for corrupt conduct after advancing his own business interests with the ­unauthorised publication of commonwealth documents.

The arrests and charges follow an eight-month investigation by the AFP called Operation Elbrus, with assistance from the ATO, that pursued allegations of a syndicate conspiracy to dishonestly divert money that was meant to go to the tax office from the ­employees of large companies.

The large companies regularly transferred funds to Plutus on the understanding those funds would be used to pay the net wages of employe­es and the balance directed to the tax office under the PAYG system. Instead, it is alleged that the conspir­ators, led by Adam Cranston and others, paid the after-tax wages but withheld millions of dollars meant for the ATO by ­funnelling these funds to up to seven second-tier companies with “straw” directors.

While retaining full control of the second-tier companies, they allegedly paid the ATO only a fraction of what it was owed and redirected the rest to themselves.

It was also claimed yesterday in a police statement of facts that veteran­ TV producer and reporter Steve Barrett was one of the directors and allegedly part of an attempt­ in February to extort $5m from Adam Cranston and other syndicate principals with the threat they would be exposed unless they paid. Police laid no charges against Mr Barrett yesterday and there is no suggestion he is involved in the syndicate.

Those charged were ordered not to ­associate with him and a long list of “straw” directors of the second-tier companies involved in the alleged scam. One of those named in the list of co-accused is Sevag Chalabian, a former lawyer for jailed former NSW Labor power­broker Eddie Obeid.

Adam Cranston, who was released on bail with others yesterday after being held at Sydney’s inner-city Surry Hills police centre and appearing at the Central Local Court via video link, is alleged to have benefited from the skimmed payroll tax money by using it to fund a luxurious lifestyle that included real estate and a blue Ford GT that featured at his wedding.

A former lover of Mr Cranston, Toni Brady, told the Herald Sun he lavished her with “mountains of cash, a new Jeep, jewellery and wild overseas jaunts’’.

“It felt like a Pretty Woman situation,” said Ms Brady, 24.

The police investigation has concentrated on the nine arreste­d and charged yesterday following 27 AFP raids, and on the alleged involveme­nt of Michael Cranston.

According to police sources, the next stage that could lead to charges involves further investi­gation of the “straw” directors and what they might have known about the syndicate’s operations.

According to the police statement of facts, “straw” directors were directors in name only for seven companies called “PPA Contractors” or “PPA Holdings” or other variations.

The “straw” directors­ were allegedly overseen by one of those charged yesterday, Daniel Rostan­kovski, while the day-to-day operations of these second-tier companies were allegedly handled­ by Lauren Cranston and Devyn Hammond.

Operations for Plutus and the straw companies were disrupted when Ms Cranston and Ms Hammond discovered a Commonwealth Bank account they used to transfer funds had been blocked.

It is alleged they suspected, accord­ing to police phone taps, that one of the straw directors was interfering — but Adam Cranston later became concerned the ATO might have launched an investi­ga­tion into Plutus. When things went wrong in February, according to a police statement­, tax lawyer and alleged co-conspirator Dev Menon told Adam Cranston that “there is no question this would be the biggest tax fraud”.



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