ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel has known billionaire Dick Pratt for a long time through the AFL, the battle for BHP, the Liberal Party and the Melbourne business and arts scene.

But does that preclude Pratt from even getting an ACCC press release sent out after the trust buster filed its sensational summons in the Federal Court yesterday morning that could jail the billionaire for allegedly lying about his cardboard cartel with Amcor?

After all, ABC Learning earned itself this press release yesterday after the ACCC “commenced proceedings” over the failure to sell a piddling two child care centres.

Samuel gave a speech in Sydney yesterday, even generating the lead story in the business section of The Australian today for supposedly loose talk about the Westpac-St George and BHP-Rio takeover battles.

The normal press release for Pratt was belatedly posted on the ACCC website this morning, but that was after veteran Herald Sun court reporter Norrie Ross got the tip and spectacularly scooped the field today with this great splash: Pratt Faces Jail.

It is extraordinary to think that Pratt could have pleaded guilty to last year’s cartel action and agreed to pay $35 million in fines without closing off all possibilities of doing jail.

While the Howard Government didn’t believe in jail terms for cartels, Pratt could join the likes of George Herscu and Alan Bond in going from the Rich List to the clink. This complete list of ASIC’s jail record since 1990 shows how the big boys usually stay free.

In Pratt’s case it might be the old story of the cover-up causing more grief than the crime itself – just ask Richard Nixon and Arthur Anderson.

Pratt has already stepped down from the Carlton Presidency and one of his predecessors, John Elliott, was the first bloke to come out and defend him today. This wasn’t a good look.

“I think it’s very vindicative act myself, it’s typical of the tall poppy syndrome in this country. He’s a fantastic man and so generous to the community,” Elliott told Jon Faine.

It shouldn’t come as any great surprise to hear Elliott backing Pratt. When Pratt almost went broke after the 1987 stock market crash, Elders IXL slipped his company about $60 million which was later thought to be a fee for Pratt’s role in the battle for BHP.

After the name change and Elliott’s departure, Foster’s sued Pratt over this but pragmatically settled in the mid-1990s with a discounted cardboard box contract. Lo and behold, Pratt then ran a cartel with Amcor against the likes of Foster’s but rather than being outraged, Elliott is backing his mate.

Graeme Samuel was the Macquarie Bank-employed adviser to BHP during the heady late 1980s. Now he’s just days away from knowing whether Labor will give him a second five year term running the ACCC. One wonders whether trying to lock up the Liberal Party’s biggest donor will work for or against him?

Babcock, Transurban, Dick Pratt and much more will be discussed on the Business View journos panel from 9am tomorrow on Sky Business.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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