The Australian dream team, that wasn’t
It is a common tale. The national government announces a big ticket joint venture, then bedazzles the public with a slew of Australian executives, who we are told are business leaders, coming in with their sleeves rolled up to develop Papua New Guinea using world class standards.
It is a technique steeped in over a century of history. On the one hand it plays on the nation’s self-doubt over its ability to deliver projects with competence and integrity; and, on the other, it gives undeserved reverence to citizens of the former colonial power, as if no caution needs to be exercised when drawing on their services (unlike say, Chinese or Malaysian business people).
However, there is one thread that weaves its way through many of the stories featured on PNGi, Australian executives are no strangers to illicit deals. While it would be unfair to make rash generalisations, we have seen over the last twenty years Australian lawyers, accountants, and corporate executives, implicated in a wide range of improper schemes that have undermined public integrity in Papua New Guinea and exploited market flaws.
Very often it only takes modest efforts to discover that the executives held up as Australia’s best and brightest, are anything but.
The much anticipated Gobuta Street Estate public-private venture, is a prime example of the latter. While there are no allegations yet of illicit activity, the irregular commercial transactions at the heart of this venture – detailed in this investigation – demands a thorough forensic investigation by the national government to ensure the venture is in legal and policy compliance.
Spearheaded by a seemingly illustrious team of Australian executives from the Berkeley Capital Group in partnership with the government entity National Housing Estate Limited (in liquidation), the estate boasts 48 two and three bedroom homes, built to the ‘highest of standards’.
No public information is available on how much capital the government contributed to the K38 million venture, which if public information is to be believed recouped a maximum of K28.8 million in sales.
Nevertheless, courtesy of the joint-venture partners, who unusually appear happy to administer this major project at a loss, a slice of cosmopolitan living in Port Moresby has been offered to a 48 lucky investors for K500,000-K600,000, which is approx half the market value. Berkeley Capital reports outstanding rental yields of 15%. The private team behind the venture will even organise finance for lucky households with their colleagues at the Bank of South Pacific.
The select few who got their hands on these 48 properties are already it seems on the quick street to riches, with properties on the estate now being sold on the market for up to K1 million. A cool return of near 100% – in just one year!
Others are being advertised for lease, at up to K2000 per week. Which would produce a sizeable yield of 17.8%.
All of this speculative activity sits at stark odds with promotional efforts, which pitched the project as affordable accommodation that would get everyday families on the housing ladder in Port Moresby.
This apparent financial wizardy, it appears, is not the product of a “world class” Australian team.
Due diligence conducted by PNGi uncovered a paper trail on the expatriate executives behind, Berkeley Capital, linking them to bankruptcy, angry creditors, dishonest dealings, and fraud. All of which raises serious questions over how good a deal this Gobuta project was for the taxpayer and public.
Sale of a Century
Properties bought by a lucky few for K500,000-K600,000 are now being sold as new for K1 million.
The Public Private Partnership
In 2015, the shady state enterprise, National Housing Estates Limited (NHEL), announced a new public-private partnership (PPP) with a little-known company: the Berkeley Capital Group.
This partnership centred on one of NHEL’s biggest projects to date – the K38 million Gobuta Street Estate in Tokarara. Over 3.2 hectares of land would be developed for the building of 48 houses, that were due to be delivered by April 2016.
Berkeley Capital was presented as a Hong Kong based group with an outstanding track record and reputation in ‘property development, construction, project management, investment and financing’, with offices in Singapore, Malaysia, the United States, Australia, the British Virgin Islands, and Papua New Guinea.
Promotional material claimed that the Berkeley Group started operating in PNG six years earlier. Through their leadership the PPP would deliver homes built to Australian standards, available for sale prices ranging from K500,000 to K600,000.
A 2015 study published by the National Research Institute on Port Moresby property prices claims: ‘In comparison to the unit/apartment sector, the standalone residences/single dwellings sector shows a more stable and steady sales price over the same period [2013/14]. The overall price ranged between K900,000 to K2.5’.
It would appear this PPP has offered the public an unbelievable deal, where they can gain a slice of the good life, for approximately half the market price.
That said, even at K500,000-K600,000 it is a sale price out of the reach of most families in Port Moresby – which begs the question, in its inception was this project in effect government subsidised real estate assets for the more well off?
And for the budding investor, the yields were promised to be substantive.
In short, they were offering rental yields of 15%, a truly stunning rate of return. Although in a disclaimer customers are warned:
Though these are rather strange documents to be soliciting given this was a scheme supposedly set up to get hard-working families on the housing ladder, rather than a gift to high roller investors.
According to Berkeley, the properties were all sold – off plan – by January 2016.
Winners, it appears, were grinners. The National for instance reported that former – and recently reappointed – NCD city manager Bernard Kipit purchased a home for a modest K560,000, taking the keys from the Housing Minister in 2017.
Although the identity of vendors are not publicly disclosed, real-estate agent listings are now littered with properties from the Gobuta Street Estate. This raises serious questions.
Was this a genuine venture for everyday home-buyers or a government subsidised gift to speculative investors who were able to acquire properties at appox. half the market price and then dump them on the market a year later for a 100% profit?
Indeed, for the lucky few who got the properties at the original ticket price, it appears they can convert their K500,000-K600,000 into approx. K1 million in just one year – an amount of money that would take a professional family a lifetime or more to save.
The vendor or vendors of the properties now being sold on the market is not known. However, PNGi has uncovered listings which suggest at least 7 properties from the Gobuta Street Estate are currently for sale on the open market, while 8 properties have been recently advertised for lease at up to K2000 p/w. In short 30% of the entire estate.
|Key questions a government investigation should answer
How were buyers selected for this once in a lifetime opportunity?
Was it transparent and fair?
Given this was a government subsidised project were steps taken to ensure only citizens of Papua New Guinea were able to acquire these properties?
What steps were taken to ensure insider information was not exploited?
How were conflicts of interest managed (assuming some buyers may have had privileged positions in government, or connections to the private venture partners)?
And crucially, given this is government subsidised housing, what measures, if any, were used to ensure purchasers were genuine home-buyers and not property speculators?
Did the project comply with the requirements set out in the Land Act 1996, Physical Planning Act 1989, Investment Promotion Act 1992, Companies Act 1997, Public Finances (Management) Act 1995, and other relevant legislation and regulation?
The actual details of the joint venture arrangements that seemingly gave birth to the sale of the century, are unclear.
Though NHEL executive chairman Kevin Ahipum explained in 2016, ‘this project is self-funded through the joint venture. NHEL through government’s equity we have 40 per cent stake in this project and as the financier, and our partner Berkeley Capital have 60 percent in this arrangement’.
The exact capital contribution made by each party has not been published (not surprisingly both companies feature in the IPA’s defaulter list, after failing to submit legally mandated annual returns – see Appendix). Nor is it known how much the government recovered once the properties were sold off, at a below market price to wealthy investors.
Indeed, the property venture is described in the media as the K38 million Gobuta Street Estate. Were this to represent the cost of the venture in capital terms – building 48 high covenant properties with civil infrastructure is not cheap! – even if all 48 properties were sold at K600,000 this would represent a K10 million loss for the PPP. Meanwhile, speculative investors are potentially doubling their money in just a year.
Media reports, also state that the Lands Department issued the joint-venture with 48 land titles – no information is provided, on what, if any payment, was made for the titles, or what conditions were attached to them. If they were granted for free, this represents a state subsidy for those private speculators now buying and dumping the properties on the market.
Berkeley Capital’s Managing Director informed EMTV: ‘The National Housing Estate Group as a company, and the individuals that are involved in the company, have been second to none in assisting us to get this project up’.
However, this commendation ought to be read with a critical eye for two core reasons. First, the National Housing Estate Limited has been put into voluntary liquidation, and its Director, Kevin Ahipum – who was a central player in the Berkeley Capital joint venture – was ‘terminated forthwith’.
Second, the Berkeley Capital executive team ‘boast’ a track record marked by bankruptcy, litigation, angry creditors, dishonesty and allegations implicating the group chief in a major fraud.
Gobuta Estate Sell Off
At Century 21 alone there are seven properties currently listed for sale from the Gobuta Street Estate, for up to K1 million. This raises questions over whether the project was set up to provide affordable family homes, or publicly subsidised assets for get rich quick speculators.
The Berkeley Group
Examination of the corporate registry maintained by the Investment Promotion Authority reveals a number of subsidiaries that appear to be associated with the Berkeley Group.
There is Berkeley Capital Management Services Limited, which owns Berkeley Construction PNG Limited. Both companies were registered as local companies operating in PNG, respectively in March 2012 and July 2014.
Then there is Berkeley Capital International Limited, as well as Berkeley Capital Group Ltd. Both are registered as overseas companies incorporated in a secrecy haven, the British Virgin Islands (BVI), which has been an enduring centre of international corporate controversy.
While it is legal to incorporate companies in the BVIs, it is worth noting that it presents a range of taxation and transparency concerns. For instance, one cannot ascertain the ultimate ownership of Berkeley Capital International Limited, as it is owned by a company that employs a nominee shareholder, Newhaven Trustees (BVI) Limited. Similarly, the owners of the Hong Kong company Sovereign (China) Limited – which holds the shares in Berkeley Capital Group Ltd – cannot be revealed due to the current inability for the public to verify ultimate ownership in the territory.
IPA registration documents for overseas companies indicate that Berkeley Capital Group Ltd started carrying on business in PNG in September 2011, managing overseas properties for PNG clients, while Berkeley Capital International Limited started operating in PNG during February 2014 with its main activity being the ‘sales of properties.’
There are two core Australian nationals linked to these different companies operating under the Berkeley brand. First, Lauchlan William Leishman who is the Berkeley Capital Group Managing Director. Second, is Alex Simpson, Berkeley Capital’s Development and Construction Manager for PNG.
Their primary local agent is PNG national Reuben Ire Kautu. Reuben Kautu is the legal owner of Berkeley’s locally registered companies – it is not clear, if Kautu is the beneficial owner of these companies – he also acts as the resident agent in PNG for the BVI vehicles. He is for his part listed on Berkeley Capital’s website as the Managing Director in PNG and Cairns.
|Whats the difference between beneficial and legal ownership?
The beneficial owner is the person whom ultimately stands to enjoy the fruits associated with the asset. The legal owner is the individual who formally holds the asset – for example as the registered shareholder with the Investment Promotion Authority.
Often the legal and beneficial owner are one and the same. However, it is also common to find that the legal owner and the beneficial owner are different. This is usually facilitated through a trust agreement, where the legal owner is a trustee holding the asset in the interests of the trust’s beneficiary or beneficiaries.
Transparency campaigners argue all beneficial owners of assets ought to be recorded in the relevant public register, as a safeguard against fraud and corruption.
In recent years, it is worth noting that Kautu has enjoyed increasingly important responsibilities within the national government apparatus. In 2014, he was appointed chairman of the newly created state-owned enterprise PNG Dataco and has since been nominated in February 2017 as deputy chairman of Kumul Telikom (the state entity under which come the newly merged state-owned telecommunications companies Telikom PNG, Bmobile and Dataco). We are told Kautu previously worked in ‘various senior capacities’ with British Petroleum and Exxon Mobil as well.
Kickbacks and inflated commissions
The public face of the Berkeley Group is its Australian Managing Director, Lauchlan Leishman. A self-styled real-estate guru, Leishman ‘modestly’ claims he is ‘a Real Estate Industry Expert who is a leader of the industry’.
Australian courts have heard evidence which put a different spin on Leishman’s career.
After completing his secondary education at the exclusive Brisbane college, Anglican Church Grammar School, Leishman had a brief stint as a financial broker. He then entered into the real estate business, co-founding Coldwell Banker Barrier Reef Realty, a QLD real-estate firm.
We learn from QLD court records that during this time he built a close business association with real-estate developer, David Morgan.
Morgan was jailed in 2012 for 7 years after he defrauded Benchmark Investments of $2 million, a company at which Morgan was a director.
Leishman and Morgan have enjoyed numerous links. First they were founding directors and shareholders of the company Barrier Reef Property Management Pty Ltd, a firm incorporated in 2007 (David Morgan was a shareholder through his company Ceridian Holdings Pty Ltd).
Second, the company Leishman co-founded, Coldwell Banker Barrier Reef Realty, was an agent of Benchmark properties, helping to sell its properties on the Australian real-estate market.
Transcripts from David Morgan’s committal hearing in July 2010 include a number of serious allegations involving Leishman and the defendant David Morgan:
The final charge, charge 9, relates to an offence that on diverse dates between the 12th of February 2007 and the 23rd of August 2008 at Cairns Mr Morgan dishonestly applied to his own use $216,715.52 the property of Benchmark Developments Pty Limited with circumstances of aggravation. The prosecution point to evidence that’s been presented that in early 2007 a Mr Leishman met with the defendant. Mr Leishman was involved in a company called Coldwell Banker. The evidence is that Mr Morgan asked Mr Leishman to increase the commissions that Coldwell Banker was charging to the Benchmark Group of Companies to 5.5 per cent, with 1.5 per cent to then be repaid to Mr Morgan.
Mr Leishman agreed to this, and Coldwell Banker, the company, invoiced the subsidiary companies for which it was assisting in the sale of units for commission in the amount of 5.5 per cent. Mr Morgan’s company, Ceridian Corporate Partners, then invoiced Coldwell Banker 1.5 per cent. This amount was paid to the Ceridian Corporate Partners bank account from Coldwell Banker’s account, and 73 invoices were raised by Ceridian Corporate Partners to Coldwell Banker during the charged period.
When reporting on the final conviction of David Morgan, the ABC notes that ‘Morgan pleaded guilty to two counts of fraud and 36 counts of receiving secret commissions from a real estate agent.’ It further adds that ‘Morgan also accepted almost $250,000 in kickbacks from a real estate agent, with whom he shared secret, inflated commissions’.
It remains unclear what, if any, actions were taken against Lauchlan Leishman following these findings.
The case had significant repercussion in the Queensland real estate industry, owing to strong links between Benchmark Investments and another company, CMC Cairns Pty Ltd, which collapsed in 2009 owing unsecured creditors and financiers over $110 million. Benchmark was reported to have played a significant role in CMC’s downfall.
A man of 'low morale'
According to Leishman’s LinkedIn account, in 2009 he moved to Hong Kong to establish Berkeley Capital Group. It would not be long before Leishman would again feature in court records.
In 2012, Lauchlan Leishman was sued in Hong Kong’s High Court, both personally and as the sole director of both Sovereign (China) Limited and Berkeley Capital Group Limited.
The Sydney Morning Herald notes that Leishman had ‘been working in Hong Kong for World Group Holdings, a company that, through its subsidiary USA Direct, sells bulk lots of cheap credit crisis-stricken US residential property to Asian investors’. Leishman was then sued by World Group Holdings Limited, USA Direct Limited and London Direct Limited, following a serious fracturing in their working relationship during August 2011.
They accused him of running away with ‘highly confidential information’ and obtained an order against Leishman to prevent him from approaching their customers. During the case, Leishman attempted to deny that he had been previously implicated in the criminal proceedings against David Morgan.
However, Leishman did admit that he had obtained unauthorized access to USA Direct’s email systems following his departure, and that he ‘had deceived the plaintiffs into believing that he had deleted all such accesses when he left the plaintiffs’.
The judge lambasted Leishman for his commercial actions, noting: ‘He put up the lame excuse [for the unauthorized access] that he was concerned as to how the plaintiffs had dealt with departing employees/contractors and wanted to protect the defendants by so conducting himself. His commercial morale is very low indeed’.
The judge refused to discharge the Ex Parte Order and the Disclosure Order, and ordered the application to be deferred to trial. PNGi has not been able to locate further documents relating to this trial.
Australian Failure, A PNG Success
Leishman is not the only member of the Berkeley Capital team to court controversy. The company’s PNG Development and Construction Manager, Australian national, Alex Simpson, boasts an equally colorful backstory – which apparently made him primed for success in PNG.
Simpson’s profile on Berkeley Capital’s website states that ‘Alex has a wealth of experience in the building and development industry in both Australia and Papua New Guinea. Alex is a Master builder with over 25 years of experience’. Indeed, we are told he is ‘a dedicated, disciplined and results oriented builder, developer and project manager who has a variety of high value projects from initial design and planning phases through to completion’.
Ommited from his biography are the hundreds of disgruntled sub-contractors in Australia, allegedly owed millions by Simpson.
In 2010 Alex Simpson became embroiled in a bitter and complex legal battle before the Queensland Supreme Court, involving the rugby league club, Gold Coast Titans, and its boss Michael Searle. The case centered upon the building of the club’s Centre of Excellence.
Alex Simpson’s company, Simcorp, had been hired on a $16.4 million contract to build the development, but soon the builder was unable to pay about 40 subcontractors. The club ordered Simpson off site and each side claimed the other owed them millions.
Around the same time, another of Simpson’ project was facing trouble, this time in New South Wales, after a development project of 36 Units at Coffs Harbour ceased, when subcontractors alleged they had not been paid by Simpson for months. Simpson told the media ‘we were supporting the Titans job on the Coffs Job. We shouldn’t have done it but we did it’, and further noted that he owed subcontractors just under $4 million.
In July 2010, his company Simcorp went into liquidation. An administrator’s report noted a ‘worst-case scenario debts of more than $12 million’. Simpson then had his building licence in Queensland suspended, while his property development in Coffs Harbor stalled.
In October 2010, Simpson filed for bankruptcy.
By the beginning of 2011, Simpson had entered PNG, working first as a construction consultant for the company SKS Developments – a firm associated with former Defence Minister, Highlands businessman, and University of Goroka Chancellor, Benais Sabumei. Readers will recall that the Commission of Inquiry into the Sandline affair, alleged that Sabumei had acted as a bagman for bribes paid by Sandline, which went into his Australian Citibank account.
Since arriving in PNG Simpson’s relationship with the controversial former Defence Minister has grown from strength to strength through other companies, such as, SKS Ltd, Ela Beach Joint Venture Company Limited and Tanoco Limited, but this time with various added responsibilities such as CEO, director or shareholder.
It is worth noting that in the Global Intelligence files published by Wikileaks – featuring intelligence reports and emails from Statfor – Benais Sabumei was alleged to be the most important backer behind O’Neill’s toppling of Somare as Prime Minister during 2011.
On 5 September 2016 Simpson cofounded the local PNG company BCPM. Interestingly, the corporate website of BCPM Ltd lists exactly the same projects as Berkeley Capital’s corporate website.
The Gobuta Street Estate public-private project must go down as the Port Moresby property deal of the century for those 48 lucky investors who acquired free-standing properties, at a price well below the market.
Even more surprising is the team who delivered this one of a kind project. Berkeley Capital is a company connected to a bankrupt Australian national, who left a slew of angry creditors behind in his home country, along with a second Australian national implicated in a fraud and other dishonest dealings.
Then we have Kevin Ahipum and the National Housing Estate Limited. The former individual has been terminated as company director, while the latter company has been put into voluntary liquidation, after being lambasted for its lack of transparency and involvement in illicit activity.
Given the ‘calibre’ of the team behind this joint-venture, which was partly funded by the national government, serious questions must be raised over why subsidised properties supposedly meant as homes for families, are now retailing for almost double the original ticket price, just a year later. Was this project a gift for property speculators? And who exactly are these lucky few who are now turning their K500,000-600,000 assets into K1 million?
This is a matter that needs urgent government attention, especially given the record of key executives involved in this venture and other anomalies noted above (and below).
If you found this investigation interesting, why not read ‘PM’s Right Hand Man in Gabutu Palace Bonanza’
Appendix - Accounting and Reporting Problems
Aside from the Gobuta project, Berkeley Capital’s website also lists as one of its past projects the construction of a four story luxury home in Port Moresby.
From January 2017 Berkeley started offering a rather novel way of acquiring a K200,000 property in Australia for its PNG clients – through a lottery system. By selling tickets at K50 a head, the company hoped to raise the necessary capital, stating that if a K500,000 threshold and K10,000 was not reached, the winner would then instead receive half of the raised money in cash.
However, the various companies within the Berkeley nexus are currently listed on the IPA’s default list for failing to meet their reporting obligations.
Moreover, an official gazette from the BVIs indicates that Berkeley Capital International Ltd was stricken from the Register of Companies in May 2017 ‘for the non-payment of annual fees’, alongside another company featuring the Berkeley name: Berkeley Capital Corporate Advisory Limited.
Lauchlan Leishman also owns two additional companies that declared activities in PNG: Langi Group PNG Limited, registered as a local company, and the BVI incorporated Langi Holdings Limited, which declared having commenced business in PNG in September 2014 and lists its main activity as ‘property development.’ Again, the latter is current listed on the IPA’s default list as having not complied with requirements since 2015, while the former was incorporated in July 2015 and has not yet submitted any annual returns.
The only other company tied into the Berkeley network which has not yet defaulted is BCPM Ltd.