The saga of the Goanna, the Costigan Royal Commission and alleged tax avoidance schemes had Crikey reaching for Paul Barry’s biography of Kerry Packer yesterday after the death of Gold Coast property developer Brian Ray. And what an amazing trip down memory lane it was, replete with big names of today starring in a Royal Commission that started back in 1980.

Robert Richter QC has just got Mick Gatto off a murder charge and handled Steve Vizard’s ASIC deal. More than 20 years ago he was the Special Prosecutor appointed to pursue tax issues arising from the Costigan Royal Commission and he had Brian Ray in court for a mammoth 54 days of evidence in 1985 which saw Ray committed to trial on the “exceedingly strong probability” that he was involved in a “dishonest and unscrupulous scheme… to deprive the Commonwealth of income tax.”

When he finally beat the rap in 1987, Ray threw a big party on the Gold Coast attended by Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, John Singleton and Kerry Packer, where Sir Joh declared: “I have always been proud to have Brian as a friend and to know he is on my team.”

The big question which remains unresolved to this day was the exact involvement of Kerry Packer in Ray’s tax schemes. Frank Costigan, Douglas Meagher QC and Brian Toohey, the then editor of Fairfax’s National Times, certainly attempted to fit Kerry Packer up with all sorts of crimes and misdemeanors that were completely false. Who can forget the 8,000-word public denial Australia’s richest man issued in November 1984, two weeks after Toohey went all out with the half-baked, half-cocked and frankly embarrassing case summaries of the supposedly secret volume nine from Costigan’s final report.

However, Barry leaves the reader with the clear impression that Kerry Packer, who was represented by Malcolm Turnbull at the Royal Commission, was the secret financier and private backer of a dodgy tax avoidance scheme promoted by Ray. Richter and Costigan certainly believed that to be the case. The best theory on the delivery of $225,000 in cash from Brian Ray to Kerry Packer was that it was his share of the profits from the scheme.

After shepherding through the Steve Vizard matter, Richter is presumably an expert on secret $1 million transfers to disguise public attention. But one mystery that Brian Ray will presumably take to his grave is the question of who was behind Progress Credits Pte and the $922,000 it transferred into Brian Ray’s bank account on 21 November 1979 to fund what Paul Barry called “quite obviously a dreadful rort.”

No-one argues that Packer instructed Ray to talk to his Sydney solicitors, Allen Allen & Hemsley, which did indeed instruct an offshore trustee company called Universal Corporate Services to transfer the money through a separate offshore shelf company Progress Credits Pte to Brian Ray’s account.

After three consecutive days of evidence in October 1983, Ray signed an authority permitting Costigan to seize all Progress Credits documents. Lo and behold, Allens immediately sent the file from its Sydney office to Singapore, so Costigan dispatched Les Lasry (who conducted the Ambulance Royal Commission for Steve Bracks), Rick McDonnell and Victorian policeman Frank Green to retrieve it.

After getting agonisingly close, the file was then spirited away to Hong Kong where it was retrieved by one Bruce McWilliam from Allens, who later admitted in court he was acting for Kerry Packer, even though Packer continued to deny he was behind the scheme or had done anything wrong. These days McWilliam is a senior executive at the Seven Network and has just sold his Vaucluse property for $18 million. Maybe he could give the story to Today Tonight if things get really ugly in the forthcoming legal battle over Foxtel.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey