Kate McClymont and Lucy Cormack-Sydney Morning Herald
Even as a declared bankrupt the construction boss has allegedly directed businesses, using a wide network of people to “run companies on his behalf … from a paper perspective,” a court heard on Friday.
It was these networks and more that allegedly made up the “jigsaw puzzle” of offending at the centre of a criminal syndicate linked to a $17.5 million tax fraud, crown prosecutor Raelene Sharp said.
Mr Alex stands charged as the alleged ringleader of the operation.
On Friday he was granted bail at Central Local Court, appearing via video from Silverwater jail, where he has been held since his arrest on the Gold Coast last month.
The court heard concerns of flight risk and interference with witnesses as reasons to oppose bail, as well as concerns for Mr Alex’s mental and physical health as reasons for his release.
Magistrate Margaret Quinn ultimately decided strict bail conditions in the form of effective house arrest could mitigate such risks, but added that “every person, every taxpayer,” was a potential victim of the alleged syndicate.
She acknowledged almost two years of police surveillance made for a strong circumstantial case against Mr Alex, citing findings from the 2015 Trade Union Royal Commission that he has “used other persons as directors of companies … and that he can exercise control over these businesses”.
A Herald investigation can now reveal how Mr Alex, alongside crime figure Michael Ibrahim, allegedly secretly controlled one of the key companies linked to the syndicate, Permaform International.
On July 21 the Australian Federal Police arrested a dozen people over the alleged fraud; including Mr Alex’s son Arthur, one of his lieutenants Lindsay Kirschberg, and Caitlin Hall, the wife of jailed crime figure Michael Ibrahim. Ms Hall is before the courts charged with money laundering.
One of the premises raided on that day was a warehouse in Moorebank, which is the headquarters of Permaform International.
On paper, the company is run by Robert Rech, who describes himself as an “energetic and seasoned professional with an entrepreneurial flair” on his LinkedIn profile.
Unfortunately for him, Mr Rech’s entrepreneurial talents have seen him inadvertently embroiled in not one, but two major tax fraud cases. Mr Rech has not been charged in relation to the alleged syndicate.
Permaform’s general manager is Adam Cranston, 31, who is facing his own lengthy legal battle following his arrest over the Plutus Payroll saga. In April this year a Sydney court heard that Permaform International had already contributed $128,000 towards Mr Cranston’s legal fees.
Adam Cranston and his father, then ATO deputy commissioner Michael Cranston, 61, were both arrested in May 2017. In February 2019 Cranston Snr was found not guilty of improperly using his position in the ATO to help his son.
A date is yet to be set for Adam Cranston, who has pleaded not guilty to conspiring to defrauding the ATO. The police are not alleging the Cranstons or Mr Rech were involved in Mr Alex’s alleged $17.5 million tax fraud, in which a series of payroll companies collapsed and avoided remitting tax and GST to the ATO.
Adam and Michael Cranston have not been charged with any offences in relation to Permaform.
In September 2019 Michael Cranston went into business with Mr Rech, establishing a company called Cospex.
In an intercepted phone call made by George Alex on August 1, 2019, Mr Alex is heard advising Mr Kirschberg to lie to a journalist from the Australian Financial Review who was making inquiries about the group’s business interests. “Have no reference to me … I’m not involved … there is no lease in Clarke Street, it’s just someone saying they were working from there, they’re in Moorebank. Do you know what I mean?” Mr Alex was heard saying.
Days earlier Michael Cranston told the AFR there were connections between the two businesses. Permaform supplied structural wall systems and Cospex could install them and supply concrete, he explained.
“The consultancy work had dried up before my court case and this gave me an opportunity to do something.
“I do not hold shares for Adam. This was my chance to get into business. My son, however, working as the general manager of Permaform did help make this happen,” Mr Cranston said at the time.
Eighteen months prior to this, in February 2018, an Earlwood local was taken aback to see Adam Cranston having a business meeting at a neighbourhood cafe, the New York Patisserie. He quietly took a photo of Mr Cranston meeting with three men, including a heavily tattooed man in a white singlet. While the tattooed man remains a mystery, the other men were George Alex and Mr Kirschberg.
Mr Kirschberg, 61, through his company Redwood Smith, is a 50 per cent shareholder in Permaform International. Described in the 2015 trade union royal commission as a “financier” of Mr Alex’s labour hire business, Mr Kirschberg was arrested at his Wollstonecraft home recently in connection with the alleged ATO fraud. He has been charged with attempting to defraud the Commonwealth and money laundering.
Police allege that throughout 2019 Mr Kirschberg’s company Adelphi Finance was used to transfer $1.3 million of alleged proceeds of crime into Permaform International. In one intercepted call, in May 2019, Mr Alex’s brother-in-law, fellow bankrupt Peter Kay, is heard saying “George and Mick have put nearly three million in the business”.
Apart from Mr Kirschberg, another interesting shareholder in Permaform is one-time bikie enforcer and boxer, “Crazy Dave” Lima, also known as Sofe “Dave” Levi.
Lima, 41, who has a conviction for violence, was second-in-charge of a bikie club known as Notorious. Police intelligence suggested that Michael Ibrahim was a high-ranking member and that Ibrahim’s brother Sam had formed the now-defunct club.
Mr Lima’s wife Clair Arthur, Mr Rech’s wife Laura Fisher and Michael Cranston are all shareholders in Cospex, which lists its principal place of business at the Moorebank warehouse.
It is not suggested that any of the Cospex shareholders have been involved in Mr Alex’s alleged fraudulent activities.
Mr Lima’s other companies, Mother Clucker and Levi Wall, also list their headquarters at the Moorebank warehouse. Mr Lima’s partner in Levi Wall is bikie associate Shane Norman Zerafa, who was jailed for four and a half years for a vicious assault.
Zerafa, 40, is facing charges of unlawfully communicating via WhatsApp with Rebels bikie Jamie Saliba, who was in Silverwater Jail. The matter will return to court on August 10.
Meanwhile, in court documents, police listed a number of Mr Alex’s associates who have links to outlaw motorcycle clubs, at least one of whom is in jail. Four of those listed have been on the Permaform payroll.
They include Lima’s former Notorious associate Ewing Filipo and brothers John and Herbert Laupepa.
Herbert, allegedly the sergeant-at-arms of the Comanchero bikie club, was one of six men charged with conspiring to murder Hells Angel Peter Zervas in 2010, following a bikie brawl at Sydney Airport. He was subsequently cleared of the charge, pleading guilty to the lesser offence of participating in a criminal group.
Other colourful Permaform employees include Edward Nassr and Joseph Zammit. Mr Nassr is before the courts on multiple violent offences and is in custody at South Nowra jail, where he was recently charged with attempting to bring in contraband.
Mr Zammit, then-Sydney boss of the Nomads, was one of the first four people to be charged under NSW consorting laws after they were introduced in 2012, following a spike in club-related drive-by shootings in Sydney.
At the time, he and his co-accused vowed to take their fight against the state government’s laws to the High Court, saying they breached constitutional rights. He subsequently pleaded guilty to stalking or intimidating and was issued a good behaviour bond.
Mr Alex has had a long-association with bikie club members who he has used in his labour hire companies. One of those arrested with Mr Alex recently was Hells Angels associate Radwan Zraika, now known as Adrian Metly. Mr Zraika survived being shot four times in the head outside a Chester Hill home in March 2017.
Mr Rech did not return the Herald’s call but he recently told the AFR: “Permaform International is not involved in the matters reported in the media this week.” “I was approached by investigators and fully co-operated and complied with their inquiries into Permaform International,” he said.
While the AFP has seized assets of companies accused of tax fraud and money laundering, “Permaform International complied with investigations, and has no restraints on trading in any capacity. It is not the subject of any allegations or charges and our doors remain open,” Mr Rich said.