Leonie Lamont August 01, 2012
THE Project Wickenby taskforce has been delivered a victory, as a jury yesterday convicted tax scheme promoter Robert Agius, and Sydney accountant, Kevin Zerafa, of conspiring to defraud the Commonwealth.
The jury, which has sat for nearly five months hearing the case, was unable to reach a verdict on two other accountants charged, Carol Abibadra and Deborah Jandagi. The two will be retried later.
The win is important for the cross-agency Wickenby taskforce, as it is believed to be the first trial of a tax scheme promoter identified in its sweep of offshore tax havens.
During an approach to the High Court last year by the four accused, it emerged that there were a further 25 targets of Wickenby awaiting sentencing or trial on the same indictments as those levelled in this case.
Mr Agius, a Vanuatu resident, was arrested in April 2008 in Perth, and was forced to remain in Australia under his bail conditions. Accountants Zerafa, Jandagi, Abibadra and Agius were accused with now-deceased accountant Owen Trevor Daniel of conspiring to defraud the Commonwealth between January 1997 and October 2006.
The trial in the New South Wales Supreme Court heard that through their relationship with Owen T Daniel and Co, small business owners went into the scheme, transferring millions of dollars.
Those small business operators had been charged with tax fraud, and some were in jail.
In an update in February, the Australian Tax Office said 65 people had been charged and 22 convicted following Wickenby investigations. Some $1.275 billion had been identified in tax liabilities in audits.
The trial heard from defence lawyers that the accountants did not at the time regard what they did as dishonest or illegal.
''Tax schemes were a relatively common occurrence,'' said Peter Hastings, QC, who represented Zerafa.
It was ''a different era'', he said.
Agius and Zerafa will face a sentencing hearing on August 8.