Sun setting on the fraud capital of Australia
The Gold Coast has had its share of scams and shysters, but the strip's mayor is adamant it's not the dodgy place it is made out to be, writes Ben Butler.
It's lunchtime on a clear, warm Gold Coast Saturday in February and the city's mayor Tom Tate is railing against non-Queenslanders who take a dim view of the sunny seaside strip.
"We're taking our critics head on," Tate tells the Gold Coast's business elite - including a gentleman in white shoes - who have gathered at the city's Metricon Stadium.
Tate is launching the Gold Coast's new brand, a giant red full-stop that cost $180,000 and has already been slammed as expensive and unnecessary in readers' letters spread across two pages of the local Murdoch paper, the Gold Coast Bulletin.
An ebullient property developer, Tate is undeterred. He loves the logo, even if other people have different views - "the good, the bad, and the southerners".
"From now on, we're scripting our own story," he says.
Tate wants to dispel the image of the Gold Coast as a haven for fraudsters, rip-off merchants and dodgy developers; he is keen to stress new industries such as education and research springing up in the hinterland behind the famous beach.
Fast forward to this month and it is obvious he has his work cut out. The empire of yet another flamboyant Gold Coast property developer and funds manager, Peter Drake, lies in ruins after administrators were called in to his LM Investment Management on March 19.
The Australian Securities and Investments Commission immediately flew investigators to the Gold Coast to talk to administrators of LM, which claims to oversee $3 billion in assets and has invested heavily in Drake's Maddison Estate development.
Drake is a well-known figure on the coast. In addition to LM and Maddison Estate, which is endorsed by celebrities including landscaper and former stripper Jamie Durie, he owns glitzy restaurant Lauxes - that's "sexual", backwards - just opposite Jupiters Casino in tourist suburb Broadbeach.
The Gold Coast is also home to characters including controversial cartoonist Larry Pickering, who has been involved in companies selling stock-picking software that was banned by the corporate regulator. An undischarged bankrupt, he lives in a lavish canal-side mansion.
Tim "Sharky" Ward, a self-described loan-shark turned pimp in Thai flesh-pit Pattaya, also boasts a Gold Coast base - a $4.35 million Surfers Paradise mansion.
Conman Peter Foster also lives on the Gold Coast. He is facing jail on contempt of court charges over his involvement with slimming spray scam SensaSlim, which the Federal Court has heard was backed by Melbourne underworld figures Mick Gatto and John Khoury. The impending verdict does not seem to have interfered with Foster's lifestyle: in January, he sold his $2.2 million mansion in Carrara, "Gov'ment House", and moved to a new mansion on the Sovereign Islands.
Gatto and Khoury are sometimes seen on the coast, hanging out at an apartment in the Wave building on Broadbeach.
Then there are the ongoing internet investment scams, run by organised crime out of rented Gold Coast offices, which have cost investors millions and are yet to be eradicated despite the combined efforts of state and federal police, and ASIC, which warned last week against another group, trading as "Global Capital Wealth".
They are sophisticated operations that rely on complex infrastructure - operators rent offices, set up phone systems, hire staff to call potential victims and have elaborate internet sites that must be maintained.
Weekend Business has linked Melbourne gangland figure Jack Doumani, an old schoolfriend of convicted drug kingpin Tony Mokbel, to Intra Trading Group (ITG), which on its website says it has achieved returns of 22.5 per cent in just nine months.
ITG claims to achieve its results using computer software that picks movements in global stock indices.
Weekend Business could not get through on ITG's toll-free number, but its website says its methods are "perfectly legal and a fantastic way to increase your income without increasing the tax that you pay. THIS MEANS YOU KEEP ALL OF THE MONEY THAT YOU MAKE".
Corporate records show that Doumani owns 40 per cent of the company behind ITG, Stanwide, which operates out of an industrial park on Ashmore Road in Gold Coast suburb Bundall.
Stanwide says it offers advice on betting, and a search of ASIC records shows it does not appear to possess the Australian financial services licence that would be required to offer a financial service such as index trading.
In 2008, Doumani was banned from holding a Victorian liquor licence for 15 years over his involvement with the Red Lion Hotel in Kilmore, north of Melbourne.
The venue was owned by Mokbel's estranged wife, Carmel, and operated by Doumani's wife, Natalie, who received a seven-year ban.
In 1999, Doumani was also co-owner of a $100,000 racehorse, Danislew, originally bought for Mokbel. Doumani could not be reached for comment.
Boiler room scams continue to be a focus of Queensland police investigations. "We are looking at some areas of suspicion at the moment," says the head of the Queensland Police fraud squad, Detective Superintendent Brian Hay.
He says the groups involved are organised and highly mobile, but plays down suggestions that motorcycle gangs are behind the scams.
"I've heard the rumours too of the OMCGs [outlaw motorcycle gangs] but I've not seen any firm evidence. But we are looking.
"It's sort of like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon - if you look far enough you'll probably find a link to everybody."
Hay says the scams are native to the area and police first started investigating them about six years ago.
"People didn't migrate to south-east Queensland to establish these things. They were here and they saw an opportunity and as they've got more people involved, those people have then broken away to their own cells.
"In the early days they were offering gambling - it was arbitrage sports investment, but we've seen them evolve into investments in diamonds and gold, offshore stock markets and all this sort of thing."
Hay says the police are hampered in their investigations because victims are slow to realise they have been conned.
"People are told, don't expect a return for 12 months. That gives them the time. It can be 12 months old before they realise they've been ripped off. Then there's going to be another six months before they really believe they've been ripped off, and the trail's cold.
"We've had the situation where you go in and if you take out a fraud like this mid-stream you get accused of all sorts of things by the victims.
"They want to sue you and kick you in the belly because they think you're actually interrupting their chance of an investment."
Private investigator Ken Gamble, who has worked for victims of Gold Coast investment scams, is blunt in his assessment of the strip.
"That's the fraud capital of Australia," he says.
Schmoozing reporters at a breakfast on the morning the Gold Coast's red dot is unveiled, Tate disagrees.
"I don't see it that much," he says in response to a question about cold-calling scams. "Those sort of things are highlighted a bit more on the Gold Coast, primarily because we're of the size we are.
"I'm sure they've got these schemes in Sydney and Melbourne, it's just for the sheer size of Sydney and Melbourne the warts are a bit better covered - but they're there."
Yet corruption runs deep in the Gold Coast's history. Even its distinctive canals are tainted by allegations of bribery linked to the infamous "Moonlight State" regime of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
In 1991, developer Albert Scheinberg pleaded guilty to paying a $170,000 bribe to former Nationals minister Russ Hinze, known as "the minister for everything", for help getting approval for canal estates.
Hinze died in July 1991, a fortnight before he was due to face trial on charges that he took $520,000 worth of bribes from developers including Scheinberg and Eddie Kornhauser, a former business associate of underworld kingpin Abe Saffron.
(Kornhauser, who died in 2006, was found not guilty of bribery charges.)
Gold Coast property developers are sometimes regarded by Tate's dreaded southerners as the sharks of the business world - dead unless they keep moving forward.
But the canals are also full of actual sharks. Expert Jonathan Werry says bull sharks live in the top of the river system as pups of about 50 centimetres long. As they get older, and bigger, they move downstream into saltier water, moving offshore when they are about 1.5 metres long.
"In the canals that are closer to the river mouth and closer to the sea, you're less likely to encounter an animal but it's likely to be a larger juvenile," he says.
They have few predators, except each other.
"They've got more to worry about from other bull sharks, which are notorious eaters of sharks - including bull sharks," Werry says.
The coast's business world is similarly closely intertwined.
Take Tomato Technologies, floated on the stock exchange in January 2001 by Pickering's son, Jamie.
Tomato sold stock-picking software that reportedly bore a resemblance to software packages circulating at the time, which were supposed to be able to pick the winners of horse races.
The company denied the allegations, but listed just as the dotcom bubble burst and hurt its bottom line. It declared a $5 million loss in 2002.
While it recovered and did reasonably well for several years, by the end of 2006 the company was again struggling. So it decided to change shape. Jamie Pickering sold his shares and left the board, and Asian Pacific Advisory, a financial services business associated with Gold Coast veteran Ric Hayter, was backed into the company.
With the company renamed Asian Pacific Limited, Hayter and Brisbane Broncos founder Barry Maranta joined the board. Tomato director Ken Wybrow stayed on.
Asian Pacific ran straight into the global financial crisis and was in voluntary administration by July 2008.
In September that year, a Queensland District Court jury found Hayter not guilty of charges brought by ASIC over the collapse of his old accountancy outfit, Harts, in 2001.
Since then, Maranta and Hayter have been caught up in the collapse of his solar shade business Sky Shades, which was heavily promoted using golf legend Greg Norman's name.
In a report dated March 20, Sky Shades Holdings liquidator Ozem Kassem, of Cor Cordis, told creditors he had referred the possibility that Maranta had breached his duties as a company director to ASIC, which is investigating the collapse.
Maranta is also stoushing with GE Finance, which on March 11 obtained an order in the Queensland Supreme Court allowing it to seize his Brisbane apartment over a $600,000 debt.
Meanwhile, AAA Shares, a financial planning business of which Wybrow was formerly company secretary, collapsed in January and ASIC revoked its financial services licence.
Tate and Gold Coast boosters are sick of hearing about it. They want to focus on a positive new future. There's an education hub going up in the shape of the new Gold Coast University Hospital, a teaching hospital next door to the Gold Coast campus of Griffith University and at the end of a light rail line that's also under construction.
There's also something of a motorsport industry, centred around the V8 Supercars competition.
But there are few cranes on the horizon - in two days, just one was seen on a private construction site, a medium-rise building in Southport.
The local construction industry has yet to recover from the financial crisis, which ended a property bubble and made many local developers broke.
And the high Australian dollar has wreaked havoc with the coast's other main industry, tourism.
While it is Australia's sixth biggest city, with a population of 500,000, many of the people on the Gold Coast at any one time are just passing through - it gets about 10 million visitors a year.
Tate realises he has work ahead of him but is, like most others on the coast, an optimist.
"I think we'll bounce back," he says.
"The preparation is happening now and you'll see the cranes back in the sky by the end of the year."
BUSINESS AND PLEASURE
At home and at work with some of the Gold Coast's interesting characters
Witt Avenue, Carrara
Gov'ment House, the sprawling home conman Peter Foster sold in January for $2.2 million
Ashmore Road, Bundall
The registered address of Stanwide, an investment company offering high returns part-owned by drug kingpin Tony Mokbel's schoolfriend, Jack Doumani
Panitz Street, Bundall
Bankrupt cartoonist Larry Pickering rents this mansion, which features a pool and canal access
Gold Coast Highway, Broadbeach
Lauxes, the glitzy restaurant owned by the chief executive of collapsed funds
manager LM Investment Management
Surf Parade, Broadbeach
Wave Resort, favoured Gold Coast hangout of Melbourne gangland figure
Mick Gatto and his business partner John Khoury
Admiralty Drive, Surfers Paradise
A $4.35 million mansion where Pattaya-based Tim "Sharky" Ward, a self-described former loan shark turned pimp, parks his Lamborghini
Knightsbridge Parade, Sovereign Islands
The mansion Foster now lives in as he awaits a verdict on contempt of court charges