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Gambler's tax debt no secret after 'all or nothing' bid

A Star casino high-roller chased by the tax office has taken a costly loss in an attempt to have his court case shrouded in secrecy.

Phillip Dong Fang Lee made news in 2022 when appearing at a NSW inquiry, when he was compelled to give evidence about his prolific use of China UnionPay cards at The Star, where gambling payments were disguised as hotel expenses to skirt Chinese capital flight laws.

The billionaire property developer earlier had accounts and properties frozen by the Australian Taxation Office, alleging a debt of almost $280 million, plus interest.

The ATO applications were supported by two affidavits and granted in July 2021.

In September, a reporter from Melbourne newspaper The Age sought access to the affidavits, which was not immediately granted.

In December 2021, Lee applied for the entire court case to be suppressed, including his identity, his wife's, and five corporate entities.

Access was later granted at a February 2022 hearing.

Lee filed an appeal, but it was dismissed in the Federal Court.

The judgment published by Justices Tom Thawley, Angus Stewart and Wendy Abraham on Thursday also ordered Lee pay the court's costs and those of The Age.

The appeal did not specify any particular reason why a blanket suppression order should be granted.

Applications for a simpler non-publication order were not made.

The judges said the case had been run on "an all or nothing basis", with an attempt to suppress the whole court file, including evidence that had not yet been filed.

They said attempts to suppress only particular parts of the evidence would likely have been successful.

"The court would have been inclined to make a suppression or non-publication order in respect of the bank account numbers.

"The appellants did not seek such an order and the counsel for The Age has consistently indicated that such material will not be published," the justices wrote, noting they did not consider it necessary to make such an order.

However, any future application to specifically suppress bank account details was unlikely to be controversial, the judges said.

An affidavit of Lee's wife, Xiao Shi, also a director of the five corporate entities, expressed concerns about reputational and financial damage if access were granted to the documents (and more media articles subsequently appeared based on them).

She had already been experiencing adverse outcomes from reactions to media reporting, including difficulties with at least one financial institution, she said.

The primary judge, Justice Robert Bromwich, noted those difficulties stemmed from debt enforcement steps taken by the ATO, not media reporting.

"None of the media reporting was said to be inaccurate or misleading," the appeal judges said.

They said just because a person may suffer reputational or commercial harm from the publication of evidence used in court, does not necessarily mean the proper administration of justice is prejudiced by such publication.

"Such harm can be an inevitable part of open justice," they wrote.