Surviving Fraud – What’s been going on for the Last Decade
by Steve Morgan
Brisbane-ites and maybe my Facebook friends would know from a few News Corp articles I’ve shared recently that January finally saw the jailing of a former Fishing Monthly Director, Robyn Lawrie, for significant fraud that she’s committed between 2008 and 2013. At the time, she was General Manager of the company.
Her head sentence was 7 years in jail.
As you’d expect, the personal toll of discovering the gutting of the company you’d invested your whole life into was significant. Not just for me but for fellow Director Matthew Drinkall and for many of the key staff and their families.
Through a network of lies and deception, Lawrie withdrew significant amounts of cash from various NAB branches and deposited them in the poker machines of the Treasury Casino while simultaneously reporting the expenditure to the accountants and bookkeepers as expense reimbursements and building repayments.
In a week, my world went from preparing to film another Australian Fishing Championships TV series and being ahead in all of our building, tax and supplier payments to having a holding company secretly liquidated and the revelation that we had an ATO bill of over $600,000 and that our building loan was over a million dollars behind where it was reported in our financials.
It was a fair shock to the system and I’m grateful for the support of my family and wife, Linelle to help me through it.
It was likely worse for Matthew. He was only a 15% shareholder in the company, but was treated as equally liable for the debts. Basically, the ATO serially bankrupts all company directors until they can recover what they’re owed.
Of course, when challenged, Lawrie denied it and hid it from her friends and family. An offer to hand back shares in the company and property was accepted, yet it took her half a year to actually sign the documents.
Icing on the cake was finding out that the holding company – Fishing Monthly Group – was under liquidation orders. I had found emails where she had instructed the Australian Government Solicitors to do it. I assume that she thought that in the collapse, nobody would look for missing funds.
It cost plenty of stress, time and around $50,000 to pay off the Liquidators and get the judgement reversed, but we did it. And so the evidence remained.
WHAT TO DO?
In the short term, we were left with a reasonably simple choice. The lawyers advised us to go bankrupt and start again under a spouse’s name, shedding the mountainous debts wherever possible. On paper, this is mathematically the best thing to do, although it disrespects your suppliers, readers, writers, staff and history.
I’d always been critical of those taking the ‘soft’ option and folding businesses while running away with the creditors’ cash out the back door. Redcliffe’s Sundown Marine did this to us and plenty of others in the industry years ago. It cost us $23,000 back then and had left a sour taste in the mouth.
There was another option – use the solid foundations of the business to trade out of the situation. She had stolen the money but not necessarily destroyed the magazines.
With some spreadsheeting skills and some financial numbers that reflected reality instead of fiction we set upon paying all of our debts in full. It was a process that we estimated would take around three years.
To free up the funds needed to make it all work, Matthew, with support of his wife Sharon, sold their house and moved in with family in Ipswich while I pulled hundreds of thousands of dollars back out of my house mortgage.
Historically, I invest my money in the house instead of the pokies, so we had the resources to self-fund the recovery.
We sold the company cars and boat and lots of things that weren’t bolted down. I went from my Phoenix bass boat and Ford truck to a pushbike for over a year.
While cleaning out Lawrie’s company car, we found an expired Casino Rewards card in the door sill – the highest level they had at the time. High Roller.
There was one important part, though, to the process and that was to report the fraud to the police. Without that step, the Australian Taxation Office wouldn’t let us claim the deductions that we would need to make it work.
So, with a massive pile of bank statements, some MYOB reports and a couple of calculators, we spent a couple of weeks manually collecting the suspicious looking transactions and quantifying them all before gift-wrapping them and delivering to the local police station at Loganholme.
All in all, this took a year – from the discovery of the fraud to the official reporting.
For the police to pull all of the cheques, bank records and casino rewards card information took another year and Lawrie was charged with stealing around $1.6million in mid 2015.
We got to claim the tax deductions and had paid off the ATO bill as well as all of the other creditors by the middle of 2016.
I asked the ATO to give me a little trophy to celebrate the payment of the debt. They declined. Those guys have no sense of humour.
AT THE MAGAZINE
Back at the magazine, there was obviously human costs of the restructuring. Many staff were made redundant (with full entitlements paid) and those remaining were asked to do much more for much less than they had in the past.
Matthew and I thank every single one of them for making the recovery possible.
Advertisers were amazing. I won’t name them, but a couple of major backers booked and paid for their whole year of advertising in advance when they heard the story. This was unexpected and encouraging. It told me that they wanted our magazine in the marketplace and would do what they could to make it happen.
Writers did what they could. They don’t get paid that much to start with, but they did their part to keep it together.
And readers did what they always did – subscribed or purchased the magazine at their newsagents.
Begrudgingly, we even paid Australia Post in full. Those that know me know that I dislike Australia Post with a passion. I get better service from a fast food restaurant. We even made sure they were paid their dues and that the Rolexes could be distributed.
We never missed an issue. Not one. So from the outside looking in, we hope it presented as business as usual.
The next obstacle that we faced was COVID. Of course, you’d have thought that the case would be well and truly wrapped up by 2020, but as we learned, you’re allowed to procrastinate virtually indefinitely in our legal system. I don’t have an exact count, but I think it was in the Magistrates and District courts 18 times. At least 15 before a ‘guilty’ plea was lodged to all of the six charges
It took ‘experts’ years to do the calculations with both sides of the equation that it took us two weeks to do on the kitchen table at work. When it went to court for a ‘mention’ it seemed everyone in the room was more interested in matching calendars than actually doing anything.
In the first month of COVID, advertising dropped 70%.
Luckily, we were well schooled in company re-structuring and it took only a couple of weeks to morph all four of the state magazines into a single, national magazine that we publish today.
Advertising is on the up again and we’re still printing.
Currently, all of the team still works from home – Jacqui and Nicole P in editorial, Marie and Kym in admin, Matt in production and Peter and Nicole K in advertising sales.
I get to be the caretaker at work along with Nicholle S at ABT. I do ride my bike to work occasionally, but it’s definitely recreational now rather than a necessity.
We lease our big, old offices to a recruitment company and most of our downstairs offices at Loganholme to Rapala and Infofish Services.
And we still publish what we think is the best fishing magazine in Australia – Fishing Monthly Magazine. And I think that we’ve done it in the right way.
Do you want to support us? Keep reading, keep subscribing and keep fishing and boating.