Sep 9, 2016

Doomsday cult, taxman, ex-parishioners go to war for Agape Ministries' hidden $6.7m spoils

Chief court reporter Sean Fewster, The Advertiser

September 9, 2016 9:46am

THE hidden millions of Adelaide’s doomsday cult have been uncovered, more than six years after Agape Ministries collapsed — sparking a messy two-court, three-way war to claim them.

The Advertiser can reveal one of the cult’s offshoots, Universal Holdings Australia, still has $6.7 million in its bank accounts, untouched by its fugitive leader, Rocco Leo.

In the Supreme Court on Friday, the Australian Taxation Office staked its claim for the cash, saying the cult’s unpaid debt had increased from $3 million to in excess of $10 million.

A group of former parishioners, who say they were duped out of more than $2 million by Leo’s claims of human microchipping and impending apocalypse, claim the money belongs to them.

But Leo’s counsel has insisted the money cannot be taken by either party — because there is no proof it belongs solely to their absent client.

Steven Mitchell, for Leo, said the money should fund his client’s new Supreme Court battle, challenge the parishioners’ win and fight the ATO in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

“The Deputy Commissioner (for Taxation) has no claim to this money — their claim is against an individual, this money is held by a third entity,” he said.

“It’s not directly connected, that’s the root of our criticism ... if there was proof this was (solely) our client’s money, it should have been brought forward a long time ago.”

The saga of Agape Ministries began in May 2010 when a police raid of its properties seized an arsenal of weapons, ammunition and explosives.

Former members alleged they were duped into handing over millions by claims of human microchipping, mass-murder and government-run concentration camps.

They said they were promised sanctuary on “The Island”, a South Pacific location at which Leo would also heal the sick and profoundly disabled.

After the raid, Leo moved to Fiji and has remained there in defiance of an arrest warrant — meanwhile, all of his and the cult’s assets were frozen by court order.

In August 2010, The Advertiser revealed Apage’s financial empire spanned two states, eight properties and a fleet of 13 vehicles, with funds in 10 separate bank accounts.

In June 2012, the District Court awarded a disabled former parishioner $420,000 compensation and, two months later, awarded the ATO $3 million in money owed, plus costs.

In September 2014, BRI Ferrier was appointed to liquidate Agape’s assets to pay its debts.

In March 2015, seven former parishioners — some of whom publicly swore loyalty to Leo — sued him, seeking a refund of the $2.5 million they poured into his coffers.

On Friday, Gillian Walker, for the ATO, said all cases pertaining to Leo, his inner circle, Agape and its offshoots were now being consolidated in the Supreme Court.

“The reason this has come up is there’s a bank account held in the name of Universal Holdings Australia with some $6.7 million in it at this time,” she said.

“There’s disputed claims over those funds ... the parishioners have a claim for at least $2.2 million plus interest, damages and costs.

“Our position is that we were owed $4 million and are now seeking significantly in excess of that, far exceeding the money in the account ... the debt (to us) is above $10 million.”

Ms Walker said the ATO was also pursuing that debt in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, but Leo and Agape were contesting its case.

She said the Universal account was covered by the freezing order and Leo should not be permitted access to it for any reason, including paying his lawyers.

She said the ATO would instead support the “unfreezing” and sale of Agape’s two remaining properties, worth $2.6 million, to cover legal expenses.

Mr Mitchell said his client wanted the Universal money, not the properties.

“The freezing order is six years old, and some of the judgments against my client are four years old,” he said.

“What has been done in the four years since, by the ATO, is nothing.”

Judge Graham Dart said the cases warranted “special classification” and would be assigned to a Supreme Court Justice for their personal oversight, from a date to be set.


No comments: