Opes Prime verdict a blow for regulator
After a six-week trial, and five years from the time his firm collapsed owing creditors more than $630 million, Julian Smith has walked from court a free man.
On Friday afternoon, a Supreme Court jury acquitted the former director of failed securities lender Opes Prime of dishonesty and using his position to gain advantage.
The verdict was a big blow to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. ASIC initiated the case, which argued that as Opes teetered on the edge of collapse, Mr Smith wrongly pledged assets to secure a $95 million loan from ANZ, to Leveraged Capital, a company to which he and Opes chief executive Lirim "Laurie" Emini had links.
In a statement, ASIC acknowledged the verdict, and highlighted that while Mr Smith was found not guilty, Mr Emini and another Opes director, Anthony Blumberg, were jailed in 2011 for two years and one year respectively for their role in the collapse.
As he left the court, Mr Smith, 51, said he was grateful to the jury and hoped to get on with his life.
His lawyer, Mark Regan, said that although the case "was a massive task, it was fairly easy for me to undertake".
"Mr Smith had steadfastly asserted that he had not been dishonest. Those were his basic instructions unwavering," Mr Regan said.
"When I got the brief, I combed through it and I just could not see that a crime was evident anyway, even if you set aside Mr Smith's instructions.
"From that point on, we held a firm line. We just held the line against ASIC and the prosecution. We were confident that a jury would see the circumstances in the way we did and of course our position has been vindicated."
Mr Regan said Mr Smith would return to his home in Wentworth Falls this weekend.
He has also had his passport returned, which was seized while he had been on bail. Mr Regan said it was a big relief for his client, who is originally from Britain.
"Not that he is going to travel imminently. It's just his elderly father is not of good health and it's a great relief for him to have that passport back."
Twenty-two witnesses were called during the trial, including John Lindholm, a partner of Opes' voluntary administrator and liquidator Ferrier Hodgson, who told the court that Opes Prime was "clearly insolvent" before signing the $95 million deal with ANZ.
The prosecution alleged Mr Smith knew that Opes faced a $200 million shortfall when he negotiated the ANZ lifeline. That figure was derived from problems in an account of a key Opes client, Sydney lawyer Chris Murphy, plus problems with Riqueza Holdings, a private company associated with Opes that had dozens of cash and share transactions to its sub-accounts until Opes' collapsed.
Two witnesses from ANZ, Felicity McKinnon and Ben Steinberg, said they were not aware of the existence of Riqueza until after the loan documents had been signed. Mr Emini told the court he did not tell Mr Smith and other colleagues that he was double-counting securities before Opes collapsed.
Opes had more than 650 clients when it collapsed owing creditors $631 million. Mr Lindholm told the court last month that creditors had recovered 40¢ in the dollar, with the prospect of 1¢ more this year, pending court action.