In another conversation they discussed Ms Hall learning a musical instrument to fill her days because she was 26 and “retired,” said Ibrahim, who’s serving an 18-year-prison sentence for drug and other offences.
The tax office was pursuing Ms Hall and Mr Alex was worried that the attention from authorities might lead to other problems. He was right to worry.
One year later it was a cast of colourful characters who found themselves in handcuffs – most still wearing their pyjamas – after authorities came knocking.
Australian Federal Police officers descended on properties in Sydney, Canberra and the Gold Coast under cover of darkness on Tuesday morning, blowing the lid on an alleged criminal syndicate, the masterminds of which were construction boss Mr Alex and Ibrahim.
It was the morning after hosting a rowdy party at his five-bedroom luxury waterfront rental at Surfers Paradise, when bleary-eyed Mr Alex, 49, and son Arthur, 22, along with long-time associate Pasquale “Peter” Loccisano, 50, were taken into custody.
Mr Alex felt so under the weather that he later underwent a COVID-19 test which came back negative.
Adrian Metly, 42, a convicted criminal who has changed his name from Radwan Zraika, was arrested at the syndicate’s nearby headquarters. Other Gold Coast arrests included Mark Bryers, 62, Gordon McAndrew, 58 and Kevin McHugh, 69.
In Sydney, Ms Hall was picked up in Greystanes, while in Earlwood the wife of Mr Loccisano, Cheryl Rostron, 50 was handcuffed. Former ANZ employee Lindsay Kirschberg, 61, was still in his night attire when police came to his Wollstonecraft home and Lucas Connell, 47, was arrested in Burraneer.
The cumulative efforts of an 18-month investigation by Operation Bordelon, a combined federal police, tax office and ASIC taskforce, were outlined in a 66-page sheet of alleged police facts tendered to the Southport Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday.
Earlier this week AFP Investigations Commander Kirsty Schofield said the alleged syndicate was a plain example of the organised crime milieu increasingly upskilling.
The syndicate actively recruited “specialists from the finance, accounting, legal and banking sectors … to commit the fraud and to keep it ongoing,” she said.
One such expert was Mr Bryers, a notorious former bankrupt from New Zealand. He was introduced to the syndicate by Connell, a former business manager at insolvency firm Jirsch Sutherland.
“I need you to sit down and really listen to this. I have a cunning plan,” Mr Bryers said in October 2019 as he and Mr Alex met in the luxury three-bedroom apartment. It had recently been purchased for $1.9 million via a company controlled by Mr McAndrew, a former Westpac employee, using proceeds from the alleged fraud which had been laundered through Singapore.
It was just after 4.30pm and Mr Alex was all ears. “I love a cunning plan,” he responded.
As Mr Bryers outlined his new scheme, neither of them knew their apartment had been bugged.
“I want to get to a point that if anybody gets asked about who owns, ultimately, this group of companies, that the Federals [AFP], the ATO … can’t get to the f—en truth.”
Mr Bryers’s plan was a “franchisee” labour hire structure which would add an additional third tier, with “straw” or dummy directors to divert attention from the real syndicate members. He was confident his new model would generate another $5 million a year.
However, Mr Alex was allegedly “ready to kill somebody” when he discovered that some of the new directors had questionable backgrounds, including an associate of mafia figure Pasquale Barbaro, who was shot dead leaving Mr Alex’s Earlwood house in 2016.
The group had several labour hire companies to provide contract workers to major construction and property firms. The processing of their payroll services was outsourced to separate payroll companies operated by the syndicate. Police allege the companies had no intention of remitting the mandatory Pay As You Go Withholding (PAYGW) tax to the ATO.
Instead, the men “crashed and burned” the payroll companies when they accrued too much tax debt. In one intercepted call Mr McAndrew said one of the payroll companies Prime Services “would fall over on the 1st of July … and Kevin will fall the week after … and hopefully that past will be dead, buried and gone.”
The “fall” was the plan to bankrupt Prime’s director Kevin McHugh to avoid responsibility for tax debts. Despite being bankrupt, the group later channelled almost $1 million to Mr McHugh to maintain his lifestyle.
It made busy work for co-accused Mr Kirschberg and Mr McAndrew, who were variously directors of the top two labour hire companies, alleged controllers of the “tier two” payroll companies, as well as allegedly being responsible for legitimate payments for labour hire employees.
At all times the alleged conspirators were aware of who was running the show: George Alex.
“George is running everything,” said Ibrahim in a call from jail to Mr McHugh in May 2019.
In another intercepted conversation with Mr Loccisano in April, 2019, Mr Alex said he wanted everyone to know, “c-nt, it’s my money.” Mr Alex exercised control with an iron fist. Mr McAndrew knew the notorious construction boss was “not going to let him walk away easily,” he told his wife in a recorded conversation in February this year.
Despite being banned from controlling any companies, police allege Mr Alex unlawfully continued to operate as a “shadow director” for labour hire entities and continued to meet senior union figures to secure favourable labour hire contracts,” police allege.
Allegedly in charge of the money laundering business was Mr Loccisano. In late June 2018 Mr Loccisano’s wife Cheryl Rostron, Ms Hall and Mr Alex’s wife Nectaria (who has not been charged) headed off on a girls’ jaunt to Singapore. While there Ms Rostron set up two Singaporean companies which were allegedly used to launder money.
Ms Rostron and Ms Hall have both since been charged with money laundering.
Almost $2.6 million was allegedly laundered through Mr Loccisano’s company Pasloc. Funds were used to prop up concreter Permaform International, which was allegedly secretly controlled by Ibrahim and Mr Alex who put almost $3 million into the business.
The company set up by Mr Alex’s son Arthur received $1.62 million. That money was used to buy a fleet of luxury cars. At Ibrahim’s insistence, his wife Caitlin received a $300,000 Range Rover.
Mr Alex’s confidant Metly received $312,000, much of which was channelled through his teenage daughter’s bank account and allegedly made to look like a sports sponsorship.
Because George Alex was still bankrupt, on one occasion Arthur sent cash to his father by transferring $23,000 to the account of a Gold Coast pawnbroker, Diamonds on Broadbeach.
If the group once counted themselves friends, you could not tell on Friday at Sydney’s Central Local Court.
Arthur Alex, Mr McHugh, Mr McAndrew and Mr Metly sat socially distanced in the court and did not make eye contact or speak, in line with bail conditions applied by Queensland court this week. Mr Metly is charged with money laundering while his three co-accused are also charged with defrauding the Commonwealth.
A frail looking Mr McHugh arrived wearing a surgical face mask, requiring help up the steps into the court house.
Alleged kingpin Mr Alex was the only member of the syndicate to be refused bail in both Queensland and Sydney. He will appear in a Sydney court on Monday, charged with defrauding the Commonwealth and money laundering.
Mr Bryers, charged with the same offences, was unable to arrive by Friday afternoon and will be brought to NSW in custody to appear at Parramatta bail court on Saturday.
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Kate McClymont is an investigative journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.
Lucy Cormack is a crime reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.