Tinkler settles debts but still faces legal muddles

THE coal baron Nathan Tinkler has been trying to get the taxman off his back. If hearings in the Federal Court on Wednesday morning go to plan, his Newcastle Knights and Newcastle Jets and seven other entities will be free of wind-up proceedings begun last December.

THE coal baron Nathan Tinkler has been trying to get the taxman off his back. If hearings in the Federal Court on Wednesday morning go to plan, his Newcastle Knights and Newcastle Jets and seven other entities will be free of wind-up proceedings begun last December.

Tinkler Group has a few other legal muddles to sort through, however, before the former billionaire can say he is home and hosed.

Mr Tinkler has been paying off debts over the past two months, including a reported $20 million to retailer Gerry Harvey - apparently settled with the transfer of his colt All Too Hard to the Vinery Stud part-owned by Mr Harvey - and $5 million owed to the Singapore commodities trader Noble Group.

The date of the Noble loan is unknown but it was apparently made last year, when Mr Tinkler's cash flow crisis was most acute and the value of his main asset - a 19.4 per cent stake in Whitehaven Coal - was at its lowest.

Whitehaven has been on a roller-coaster ride in the past few months, partly because of uncertainty created by Mr Tinkler himself - with his unsuccessful privatisation bid and a campaign to roll the board - and partly due to weak coal markets, ramp-up troubles at the Narrabri underground, a train derailment, the activist Jonathan Moylan's hoax press release, speculation of a merger with China's Shenhua and uncertainty over the approval of the Maules Creek open-cut. Whitehaven shares fell to a low of $2.74 in November but have recovered to $3.20 as of Tuesday. Mr Tinkler's Whitehaven stake is now worth $630 million.

That remains well short of the total of Mr Tinkler's debts to Noonday, the Singapore arm of hedge fund Farallon Capital, which stood at about $700 million including principal and accumulated interest, as Fairfax Media reported in December.

The short-term loan from Noble was secured against Mr Tinkler's 75 per cent share of a royalty paid to Oceltip Pty Ltd - at the rate of $1 per tonne of coal from the Middlemount coal mine jointly owned by Yancoal and Peabody - which is subject of a dispute with his former partner Matthew Higgins, entitled to the other 25 per cent. Mr Higgins claims the Oceltip royalty - which has a net value of $28 million to $34 million after tax, according to analysts - has not been properly accounted for. Mr Tinkler disputes the claim.

While racking up a few wins on the racetrack, Tinkler's thoroughbred stud is still financially restructuring. Patinack Farm Administration (PFA) is in liquidation and its directors facing a possible insolvent trading claim, as BusinessDay reported on Monday. PFA is itself owed $4.1 million by the Oceltip Investments Trust, which was "used as a type of clearing house", according to the liquidator, Anthony Matthews.

Meanwhile, Mr Tinkler, seen in Brisbane last week but resident in Singapore, faces a public examination in the NSW Supreme Court in just over a fortnight by Ferrier Hodgson, liquidators of his Mulsanne Resources. Last year Mulsanne agreed to take up a 34 per cent stake in the listed coal junior Blackwood Corporation at 30¢ a share, worth $28.4 million.

Blackwood shares closed on Tuesday at 10.5¢ a share, valuing the entire company at just $19.4 million - meaning it would be cheaper for Mulsanne to take over the whole company than complete the placement deal.

Blackwood is 51 per cent owned by Noble, and some kind of deal with Mr Tinkler, perhaps involving the Oceltip royalty, may be on the cards. The publicity-shy Mr Tinkler would be loath to take the stand in court. Lastly, Mr Tinkler was seeking to recover his private jet and helicopter, which were seized by Taylor Woodings last year on behalf of lender GE Capital, which is owed $US12.4 million. The jet is in Perth and the helicopter is in Brisbane, and neither has yet been sold.

A series of smaller debts have been settled, including a dispute over a fee owed to the Brisbane agency McGees Property, reportedly of about $200,000, and a $136,000 personal debt to Luxbet, a division of Tabcorp, which went to the Northern Territory Supreme Court. And wind-up proceedings against a string of other Tinkler entities have been withdrawn.

Mr Tinkler may yet be able to pull it off.

Receivers and dates in court

The Federal Court is expected to hear today that nine of Mr Tinkler's private companies - including the Hunter Sports Group, Newcastle Knights and Newcastle Jets Football Operations - have paid their tax debts.

The wind-up of Patinack Farm Administration, which has debts of $5.1 million, including to the Tax Office, continues and may yet result in an insolvent trading claim from the Adelaide-based liquidator, Anthony Matthews.

Mr Tinkler's TGHA Aviation, the owner of his private jet and helicopter, remains in receivership, owing $US12.4 million to GE Capital.

Mr Tinkler faces a liquidators' examination in the NSW Supreme Court on March 8 in a $28.4 million dispute with Blackwood Corporation.

A dispute between Mr Tinkler's Oceltip Pty Ltd and the MG Higgins Investment Trust, over a $1 per tonne royalty from the Middlemount coalmine, returns to the Queensland Supreme Court on March 19.

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