Australian Aristocrats and Sir Ted Diro at the Centre of ‘Massive Fraud’ Allegations
In 2016 a parliamentary question was submitted to the Minister for Commerce and Trade Richard Maru. It centred on a 5,000 hectare plantation in Central Province known as Koitaki plantation.
The Member for Kairuku-Hiri, Peter Isoaimo, noted ‘the ownership and sale of Koitaki Plantation has somehow landed in the hands of shareholders and directors of a company that is associated to a former Member of Parliament from Central Province [Ted Diro], when it should be negotiated in a manner and fashion where much of the benefit goes to the initial Koiari landowners or the Dauri clan of Sogeri’.
The Member for Kairuku-Hiri continued, ‘from information we gathered, that plantation is now put up for sale at an amount like K45 million [the current figure appears to be K25 million – PNGi]’
The Minister’s response to Isoaimo’s question was, by any measure, explosive:
This sale is very suspicious and the Government is investigating that and hopefully next few weeks we will uncover what I consider is a massive fraud. I want to assure the good Member of Kairuku-Hiri and the people of this country that the State will not allow such suspicious transactions to take place.
The Minister continued, ‘Koitaki Plantation owes the State K6 million … it is our intention to recover the liability owed to the State’.
At the centre of these serious fraud allegations made by the Minister are two self-styled Australian aristocrats, Lord Peter Murray and Lady Beverley Anne Murray, who up until 2016 were the principals of Koitaki Plantations Limited. They then sold the company to Sir Ted Diro in 2016 for K6 million.
Sir Ted Diro appears to have then rapidly offloaded the company’s landholdings for K25 million to PBF Agro-Business Limited, which is owned by the Pacific Balanced Fund and managed by Pacific Balanced Fund’s trustee Melanesian Trustee Services Limited.
Documents viewed by PNGi raise serious questions over the initial sale of shares in Koitaki Plantations Limited to Sir Ted Diro by the Murrays.
Now the plantation will evidently be turned into a luxury food park, complete with a large housing development, a corporate retreat and golf course.
In today’s PNGi investigation we dig into Koitaki Plantation Limited, opening up an Alice in Wonderland style rabbit hole, full of unbelievable deals and larger than life characters. The cast includes disgraced former Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the disgraced former Forestry Minister Ted Diro, two self-styled Aristocrats from Tasmania, and support characters with a chequered past.
Sir Joh and Lord Peter Dream Big and Fail Spectacularly
The two self-styled members of Tasmania’s gentry at the centre of allegations over Koitaki plantation are Lord Peter Murray and his wife Lady Beverley.
From their home in the small rural town of Sheffield in northern Tasmania, Lord Peter and Lady Beverley enter the public spotlight during the early 1990s as a result of an unlikely friendship struck with Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the disgraced former Premier of Queensland. Sir Joh had been forced out of office over systematic corruption in Queensland uncovered by the Fitzgerald corruption inquiry.
For over a decade Lord Peter and the ageing Sir Joh were close friends and business partners. Their commercial dealings were so incredible they sparked disbelieving media coverage.
News report describe Lord Peter as a real estate agent, National Party president (Tasmania), a Tasmanian farmer, a millionaire, the alleged cousin of NSW National Party Leader Wal Murray, and a student of the Late Western Australian mining magnate Lang Hancock.
Sir Joh and Lord Peter had many adventures together. Few succeeded.
First came the Murray Merchant Pacific Bank headquartered in the lesser known financial centre of Vanuatu. Sir Joh and Lord Peter claimed they were managing large amounts of capital contributed by investors from the former Soviet Union and Europe.
The Murray Bank under Sir Joh’s Presidency planned to pump this massive payload of European money into the Pacific region.
According to Lord Peter he and Sir Joh visited PNG in 1991, at the alleged invitation of Finance and Planning Minister, Paul Pora. The Deputy Prime Minister at the time was Sir Ted Diro, though there is no suggestion at this stage he had any direct involvement with Lord Peter or Lady Beverley.
Murray Merchant Pacific Bank promised to invest A$278 million in PNG. Among the proposed projects was a major timber-milling operation. Sir Joh and Lord Peter also lent their fund raising ‘expertise’ to PNG’s National Party, led at the time by Michael Mel.
It appears the bank failed before it could get off the ground. Lord Peter informed the media that Vanuatu’s government ‘breached the most basic of confidential understandings’.
Undeterred by this setback, in 1993 Sir Joh and Lord Peter proposed setting up Australia’s first ever private space station in Queensland. It never eventuated.
Then they spruked a new theme park at the Bjelke-Petersen Kingaroy homestead in Queensland. It would be a cross between Elvis Presley’s Gracelands and Dreamworld, the Courier Mail reported. The theme park never materialised.
In 1995 came a new venture. Sir Joh and Lord Peter set up Flo’s Country Kitchen cafe in Sheffield, named after Sir Joh’s wife Flo Bjelke-Petersen who had authored an acclaimed country cookbook. Lord Peter promised there would be a chain of 154 shops across Australia. The business closed soon after.
Undeterred by this series of failed ventures, in 1996 Sir Joh and Lord Peter promoted a line of hovercrafts that could shoot like a bullet across water at 250 km/h, five metres above ground. Sir Joh and Lord Peter soon abandoned the project after it became embroiled in bitter litigation.
In 2005 Sir Joh passed away in Queensland. At the same time Lord Peter and his wife Lady Beverly were immersed in new opportunities further north in Papua New Guinea offered by their purchase of the company, Koitaki Plantations Limited.
During all of the extensive Australia media coverage in the 1990s, where Peter Murray made a number of extravagant claims, one claim was absent. There is no record of Peter Murray or his wife Beverley ever presenting themselves to Australian reporters as members of the aristocracy.
A 'Massive Fraud' and Unpaid Debts
In 2016 Member for Kiriwina-Goodenough Douglas Tomuriesa made an impassioned plea to parliament reflecting specifically on Koitaki plantation and other land based scandals.
‘PNG has made many foreigners rich’, Tomuriesa lamented, ‘because we are blind and allowing them to come and do what they want to’. He continued, ‘our law must be respected, many time we push the law aside and we say that we are the law. We must not allow foreigners to come and do what they want and exploit our country’.
While it is unclear if anyone involved in the Koitaki Plantation Limited venture has in fact broken the law, there are strong grounds for public concern.
Settled at the turn of the 19th century Koitaki plantation was operated for several decades by the British New Guinea Development Company, before ending up in the hands of state owned ANGCO in the 1970s and 1980s.
Its recent history begins in 2001 when the plantations owner, Koitaki Plantation Limited, was acquired by the foreign company, Nominee Trustees (NZ) Limited. Nominee Trustees (NZ) Limited was owned at the time by John Graham Cumming a New Zealand national based in Acacia Bay.
According to a New Zealand media report from this period, Cumming has been banned by the New Zealand Securities Commission from promoting an ‘overseas investment scheme’, which proclaimed ‘improbably high returns’. It is unclear from the reporting if this scheme was in any way connected to Koitaki plantation.
In litigation against Queensland accountant Harry Jewiss, a Queensland District Court Judge also accused Nominee Trustees (NZ) Limited of being ‘knowingly involved in … wrongdoing’ that centred upon the alleged theft of $80,000 from an Australian war veteran.
During this period the Australian Associated Press claimed regulators in Australia had shut down another ‘unregistered offshore investment scheme which raised more $2.2 million from church members on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast’. Included in this investment scheme was Koitaki Plantation, though there is no allegation in the reporting that New Zealander Graham John Cumming was involved.
In December 2003 Nominee Trustees (NZ) Limited sells Koitaki Plantations Limited to Escrow Express Limited, a company registered in the secrecy and asset ‘protection’ haven of the Cook Islands (this means it is difficult to discover the owner of Cook Islands companies, and it is also difficult to enforce foreign court judgements against Cook Islands entities). Later share transfer records suggest the ultimate owner was the Murray family.
Koitaki Plantations Limited annual returns filed during this period place the company in a challenging financial position, sometimes making small losses and sometimes making small profits. It had stock valued at K3.5 million including cattle and horses, and a rubber tree plantation and citrus orchard valued at K6 million.
Under the ownership of Escrow Express Limited, Koitaki Plantation Limited quickly obtained a A$5 million loan from a shelf company, Muri Estate Limited, which appeared to be owned by the Murrays, and managed by Gary Jewiss a businessman slammed in the National Provident Fund Commission of Inquiry. An additional loan of K13.3 million was secured from the Bank of South Pacific in 2009, according to IPA filings.
Soon after this date came a series of serious allegations. The Minister for Agriculture Tommy Tomscoll informed parliament in 2014 ‘the Government purchased 7, 000 cattle from Ramu Agribusiness in 2008 and these were distributed throughout the country. A lot of these cattle were distributed to Koitaki [Plantation] Limited’.
Tomscoll continues ‘the owners of these cattle ranches, despite having agreements with the State do not want to allow the State to do an audit. Therefore in the case of Koitaki, we went through the National Court to obtain a Court order to carry out an audit and it has been completed and we are in discussions to negotiate a settlement with the owner of Koitaki, however the owner no longer resides in the country as he fled just before the Court order was issued for the audit’.
A PNGi source claims Lord Peter’s flight from PNG was linked to allegations of torture reported on by PNG blogger, Deni Tokunai.
The government was not the only creditor having problems tracking down the Murrays.
Charlton Ltd trading as Kookaburra Meats initiated legal action to recoup unpaid debts of K330,957 from Koitaki Plantations Limited. The parties agreed to court ordered mediation in 2013, but Koitaki Plantation Limited never showed up. Justice Kandakasi remarked ‘I find that, Koitaki’s conducts are obviously contemptuous of the orders for mediation’ and awarded K330,957 to Charlton Limited.
The elusive Murray family were, however, able to strike a sales agreement over Koitaki Plantations Limited with disgraced former politician, Sir Ted Diro.
Sir Ted Diro turns K6 million into K25 million ... Or does he?
Shortly after its run in with Kookabura Meats and the government, Koitaki Plantations Limited entered into negotiations with Sir Ted Diro for the sale of shares ultimately owned by Lady Beverley, wife of Lord Peter, through a Cook Islands entity Pacific Plantations Limited.
Koitaki Plantation Limited’s Board of Directors during this period included Lord Peter, Lady Beverley, their daughter Lady Athena and an associate Christopher Saddlier.
According to a Hobart Mercury news report from 2019 Lady Athena was wanted for seven dishonesty charges dating back to 2009. The charges were later dropped, reluctantly, after Prosecutors failed to locate her following searches ‘at various caravan parks across the nation’.
Saddlier is also reported to have evaded authorities, this time in PNG. According to PNG media reports from 2015, Australian national Chris Saddlier failed to appear in Court to face a stealing charge. A warrant for his arrest was issued by Magistrate Cosmos Bidar.
Saddlier informs PNGi he has done nothing wrong and the warrant was subsequently quashed.
At the other side of the negotiating table was former Central Province politician, Sir Ted Diro. Diro left politics during the 1990s after he fell foul of the Commission of Inquiry into the Forestry Industry and a Leadership Tribunal, which found him guilty on eighty-one counts of serious misconduct in office.
In the lead up to the Diro sale, Koitaki Plantation Limited’s financial filings undergo an irregular change.
Unaudited company accounts state in 2015 Koitaki Plantations Limited retained K55,987,912 in profits, and owned K48,207,397 in property, plant and equipment, and a further K14,038,065 in stock, with liabilities of a mere K1.5 million. Previous financial returns submitted in 2008 listed the assets at a much more modest value of K8.88 million.
In other words, in the space of seven years company assets had grown six times larger, with an additional mouthwatering stash of retained profits, all of which stands in notable contrast to its historical financial statements, where marginal profits and losses were reported.
It appears Sir Ted was offered an incredible deal. He paid just K6 million for the shares owned by Lady Beverley through her Cook Islands company, Pacific Plantations Limited, for a company seemingly in possession of assets ten times greater in value.
Was the mercurial Sir Ted Diro outwitted by the Tasmanian vendors?
Here is where the plot thickens.
The PNG company register indicates that at the time of the sale to Sir Ted, Koitaki Plantation Limited’s shares were owned by Pacific Plantations Limited. Not though the Cook Islands registered company, Pacific Plantations Limited, but the Papua New Guinea registered company, Pacific Plantations Limited, which is owned by Christopher Saddlier and Mary Vii Elavo (it will be recalled Saddlier was listed as a Koitaki Plantations Limited Director).
According to the company register the PNG company Pacific Plantations Limited acquired the shares in Koitaki Plantations Limited on 13 December 2003. This appears impossible because Pacific Plantations Limited was only incorporated on 27 April 2016, some 12 years after this date.
The original filings for the 13 December 2003 share transfer shows the Cook Islands company Escrow Express Limited acquired all shares in Koitaki Plantations Limited. There is no subsequent filing on the company register documenting a transfer to PNG company Pacific Plantations Limited.
This prompts two question.
First, is the irregular company register record for Koitaki Plantation Limited’s past shareholders a result of error or manipulation, a question that can only be ultimately answered by the Registrar for Companies.
Second, did Pacific Plantations Limited of the Cook Islands actually own any shares in Koitaki Plantations Limited? The company register points towards two potential owners, Escrow Express Limited, or Pacific Plantations Limited of PNG.
If the Cook Islands based Pacific Plantations Limited did not in fact own shares in Koitaki Plantation Limited, then that would indicate Sir Ted Diro purchased the shares in Koitaki Plantations Limited from the wrong vendor. Were that to be the case, subsequent land sales executed by Sir Ted Diro on Koitaki Plantation Limited’s behalf would be in question.
This is where Melanesian Trustee Services Limited (MTSL) enters the picture.
MTSL is a licensed trustee company responsible for the Pacific Balanced Fund and Pacific Property Trust. It is also the fund manager for the Pacific Balanced Fund.
MTSL has come in for stinging criticism from Justice Don Sawong in his 2007 Commission of Inquiry report on the Pacific Balanced fund. Judge Sawong observed, ‘since its appointment [as manager of the Pacific Balanced Fund] MTSL has not acted in good faith nor acted in the best interest of the Unit Holders. It has earned huge fees, yet it has committed serious breaches in the discharge of its fiduciary duties’.
In May 2016 MTSL reported it had ‘signed an exclusivity agreement with Koitaki Plantation Limited for use of its 1000 hectares of rubber wood plantations. MTSL has seen the potential in developing this land for large scale mechanized agriculture projects, real estate and tourism’.
A 2018 investment brochure indicates that the Pacific Balanced Fund, under MTSL’s management in fact acquired the entire estate formerly owned by Koitaki Plantations Limited, through a special purpose company PBF Agro Business.
PBF Agro Business’ current Directors include Transparency International Chairman Lawrence Stephens, Fijian businessman John Ian Sanday, former PNGDF commander, Jerry Singirok and Mark Sakai, an executive lambasted by Justice Makhail for ‘a flagrant breach of trust and abuse of power’, in unrelated matters. Previous Directors include Rex Paki, an individual at the centre of a recent bribery scandal published in The Guardian.
The purchase price has not been disclosed. However, 2019 liquidation proceedings regarding Koitaki Plantation Limited indicated a sale price of K25 million.
According to the liquidator, Diro has refused to make ‘available company records, books and assets’. Diro has, in turn, attempted to have the liquidation order set aside, noting he has secured contracts of sale to sell off plantation land for K25 million. The Court refused to set aside the order.
Would K25 million be a good deal?
If filings lodged by Koitaki Plantations Limited in 2016 are to be believed, it was a bargain. Directors reevaluated the property’s value from K5 million to K50.5 million.
If on the other hand financial returns filed earlier in 2008 are to be believed, this was in fact a premium price to pay for the land.
Former Koitaki Plantation Limited Director Christopher Saddlier informed PNGi ‘as you would be aware the value of land is worth what someone is prepared to pay for it’.
PNGi’s request for information on the deal from MTSL and PBF Agro Business was not responded to. The most recent filed accounts for PBF Agro Business Limited note the land transactions are in process, but do not appear yet to contain their perceived value on the company’s asset register.
And what has happened to the Murrays?
That is not clear. However, their Sheffield home in Tasmania was sold in 2015 for A$375,000. It was described as a ‘home to landed gentry and guests have included a who’s who of Australian public life’.
Koitaki plantations documentation
Back in 2016 Richard Maru, Minister for Commerce and Trade, expressed deep concern over what described as a potential ‘massive fraud’. He promised police investigations. He promised justice for landowners.
Those landowners appear to still be waiting.
The purchaser Sir Ted Diro is now fighting with liquidators so he can finalise a land deal he values at K25 million.
And documents indicate this purchaser is PBF Agro-Business Limited owned by the Pacific Balanced Fund. PBF Agro Business has proposed to turn the run-down estate into an elaborate food park.
Company registry records, however, put this arrangement in question. The register states that the PNG company, Pacific Plantations Limited, was the owner of Koitaki Plantations Limited in 2016, when Sir Ted purchased his shares from a Cook Islands company by the same name, which was not the registered owner of the shares according to company registry records.
Filings on the company registry further muddy the waters. Share transfer documents dating back to 2003 indicate Escrow Express Limited was in fact the owner of Koitaki Plantations Limited in 2016.
If this is a ‘massive fraud’ as the Minister claimed in 2016, the question that needs to now be determined is – who are the victims and who are the perpetrators?