Enraged Australians chase business cheats overseas

Sydney, May 1 (DPA) Australian investors cheated out of their savings are taking the law into their own hands, hiring private investigators and making sure those they suspect of robbing them are brought back to the country to face the courts.

Vigilantes have also hounded the corporate watchdog, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC), into action.

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“On the whole, ASIC is not dealing with the issues that would make a difference to retail shareholders,” said Stephen Matthews, head of the Australian Shareholders Association.

Back in 1990, corporate villain Christopher Skase left Australia and more than 1 billion Australian dollars ($830 million) in debt for exile.

When reporters tracked Skase down to the Majorca hideaway in Spain where 11 years later he died, they found the fugitive living with his family and servants in a mansion with an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

These days, the chances of a Skase having a leisurely dip and a cocktail in peace are slim.

Small-time investors like Matthews fret that tricksters have been able to evade prosecution because those relieved of their money are too poor, too distressed or too embarrassed to chase after it.

Fiona Russell, who is owed 800,000 Australian dollars by Sydney “wealth creation” consultant Simon Finnigan, knows the heartache of trying to bring to book someone she suspects of being a con man.

“Whenever we tried ringing Finnigan to demand answers, he was somewhere different in the world,” the 56-year-old retiree said.

ASIC, stung by criticism that it has allowed fraudsters to skip the country, has impounded Finnigan’s passport. It’s looking for the 15 million Australian dollars Finnigan raised from 35 individuals and which he now admits to having lost.

Finnigan might prove to be one that didn’t get away. There are many who have given Australia the slip, and there are those who are being pursued with amazing vigour by those who believe they are the victims of white-collar crime.

Katya Barnes lost her savings to a dodgy property developer called Kovelan Bangaru. When the South African-born Bangaru’s finance firm collapsed in 2005, Barnes was owed 160,000 Australian dollars.

While ASIC was poring over the books, Bangaru fled Sydney for the US. He took a new name, rented a house in California and started a new property-investment business.

Barnes decided she couldn’t wait for ASIC and went after Bangaru herself. The 39-year-old was arrested in April and is now in prison awaiting the outcome of an extradition request to face criminal charges in Australia.

“ASIC have made it quite clear we won’t get any money back, but now (Bangaru’s) been caught, the 160,000 feels like honey in my mouth,” Barnes said.

Barnes, 44, spent two months in California tracking Bangaru down and having him served with legal papers that brought on the extradition request.

She has been an inspiration to another vigilante group that decided to hunt Gabrial Pennicott after he fled Melbourne two years ago. In April, they served him with an Australian Supreme Court civil claim seeking 750,000 Australian dollars in damages.

If Pennicott doesn’t return from Canada to try to clear his name, the case can be heard in his absence.

Pennicott left Australia the day after he was interviewed by ASIC about the collapse of his investment company. Among the 20 private investors who feel bilked by Pennicott is John Johnston, a former police detective who said he couldn’t credit that ASIC didn’t confiscate Pennicott’s passport while investigating his dealings.

“This man has allegedly defrauded a large group of people millions of dollars, yet he is allowed to leave the country after being interviewed by ASIC,” Johnson said.