Big blow for $105m ATO fraudster
A judge has lambasted a “fundamentally unfair” last minute decision by the Attorney-General’s office to withdraw funding for a man convicted of a $105m tax fraud.
The Supreme Court was told on Thursday that Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus had directed that the Commonwealth no longer provide funding for Adam Cranston.
Cranston, the son of the former deputy commissioner of the Australian Taxation Office, was found guilty of orchestrating a scam that defrauded the country of $105m in taxes.
During the trial, the court was told Cranston’s company, Plutus Payroll, had misappropriated $105m in taxes over three years.
His sister Lauren Cranston, lawyer Dev Menon, Patrick Willmott and Jason Onley were also found guilty of their involvement in one of the biggest tax scams in Australia’s history.
The funds were siphoned off into second-tier companies so the five conspirators could spend it on luxury properties, cars, boats, and jewellery.
The court was told Cranston had been receiving funding from the Commonwealth for two years after he was denied legal assistance from NSW Legal Aid prior to his trial.
He was granted federal funding in 2021 after his assets and finances were frozen and he was unable to pay for his legal defence.
In what Justice Anthony Payne termed a “remarkable change of position”, the court was told the funding had been pulled ahead of Cranston’s sentencing.
Australian government lawyer Benjamin May said the decision had been made that funding the sentencing would not fall under the purpose of the special circumstances scheme.
Justice Payne told the court he was “profoundly unhappy” about the late development.
“The new Attorney-General has decided that the Commonwealth, having funded this for two years, has decided to drop out now,” he said.
“I’ve been a judge for quite a long time. It takes quite a lot to put me in a position where I’m lost for words, but I’m lost for words.”
He said the former Attorney-General Michaelia Cash “to her great credit” had intervened personally to ensure Cranston received funding to ensure adequate legal representation.
“I am flabbergasted that you tell me the Attorney-General has changed this position,” he said.
Justice Payne said he had “no idea” why Cranston’s initial requests for funding were refused by NSW Legal Aid but said it was “fundamentally unfair” of the Attorney-General to withdraw funding at the 11th hour.
A spokesperson for the Attorney-General’s Department confirmed the convicted fraudster would not receive any further federal funding.
“While his guilt was being determined, Mr Cranston was provided with extensive taxpayer-funded Commonwealth legal financial assistance,” the spokesperson said.
“The standard process for individuals who wish to access financial assistance is to apply to the legal aid commission in the state and territory they are located and we understand that Mr Cranston has taken steps to explore this option.”
Justice Payne blasted the “tug of war between the states and the Commonwealth” that would leave Cranston without representation as he waits to learn his fate for the $105m fraud.
The court was told that it would be “impossible” for another lawyer to assess the evidence tendered in the nine-month trial.
The cost to the community of briefing a new lawyer would also be “astronomical”, Justice Payne said.
Luke Wilson, a lawyer who acted for Cranston during his trial, told the court that he had contacted NSW Legal Aid to secure funding for the sentencing and he was awaiting a decision.
Justice Payne adjourned the matter until Tuesday.
“I think there is a significant public interest in setting out what is happening here in our criminal justice system in a very serious case,” he said.