Adrian Ballintine, the flamboyant founder of failed Australian satellite company NewSat, has been named in a Melbourne court as a “co-accused” after his former tax adviser and business partner was charged as part of a long-running probe by the nation’s corporate watchdog, ASIC.
Jason Cullen, who provided tax advice to NewSat and was a shareholder and finance chief of Mr Ballintine’s luxury yacht business, has been charged with two counts of creating false invoices in relation to payments worth $275,000.
A Commonwealth prosecutor told the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday that Mr Ballintine was a co-accused in Mr Cullen’s matter. However, it emerged later in the day that charges are still to be served on Mr Ballintine and Fairfax Media understands he may face different charges.
Once a darling of the ASX, NewSat collapsed in 2015 and wiped out $200 million of investor money. Its international financial backers, the US government’s ExIm bank, was owed $280 million and Europe’s COFACE $108 million.
NewSat was hoping to launch Australia’s first privately owned, non-government satellite. It also owned satellite tele-portals which received highly classified US and Australian military communications and were later penetrated by Chinese hackers.
NewSat’s collapse came after Fairfax Media published a series of reports detailing serious alleged governance breaches and conflicts of interest at the company, including controversial payments made to Mr Ballintine’s Gold Coast Cresta Motor Yachts business.
Mr Ballintine, NewSat’s managing director as well as founder, and several other company executives and consultants enjoyed an extravagant jet-setting lifestyle as they travelled the world seeking investor support and contracts.
The firm also had high-level political and diplomatic support, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2012 suggesting the “pretty capable” NewSat could provide satellite services for the NBN Co. Mr Turnbull was shadow communications minister when he made the comment.
Former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke was also enlisted as a consultant by NewSat and awarded a generous share package and a healthy monthly retainer. There is no suggestion Mr Hawke was involved in any wrong-doing in relation to NewSat.
A sensational leaked boardroom video captured the increasingly dysfunctional climate at NewSat as it began to run into financial problems. It showed NewSat’s then chairman, Melbourne businessman Richard Green, and then independent director, former Australia Post deputy chairman, Brendan Fleiter, in a heated disagreement which threatened to become physical over the financial management of the company.
Mr Cullen was in court on Tuesday as the charges were filed. He will appear again in March.
Mr Ballintine, a former Richmond Football Club director, and other senior former NewSat executives, are also facing legal action on another front with receivers from McGrathNicol earlier this year filing a damages claim in the Federal Court seeking $270 million.
The McGrathNicol action alleges Mr Ballintine and Mr Green breached their directors’ duties on several occasions.
Fairfax Media’s reports on NewSat revealed how some of the company’s directors, executives and consultants were also deeply involved with Mr Ballintine’s yacht business either as part-owners or senior managers.
In 2014, Mr Ballintine was awarded a bonus of $1.2 million in addition to his $1 million salary and share options worth $1.15 million when they were vested.
It also emerged that Mr Ballintine used his own NewSat shares as collateral for a private loan despite the company being placed in a trading blackout.
NewSat’s former independent directors, Mr Fleiter, former St Kilda Football Club president Andrew Plympton and Mark Fishwick, became so concerned about the company’s expenditure that they hired former BHP vice president Brendan Rudd to investigate.
Mr Rudd’s conclusion was damning: “I have never seen nor heard of more appalling corporate behaviour than at NewSat”.
Mr Ballintine in 2015 rejected many of Mr Rudd’s criticisms in an interview with leading finance commentator Alan Kohler.
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