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Why did Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate sell property out from under former Albury Mayor Amanda Duncan-Strelec to a bankrupt crony registered under four different names in ASIC. How did ASIC and other authorities let this happen? Managing editor David Donovan investigates.

AMANDA DUNCAN-STRELEC: Mr Tate, do you know a man called Francis Kovacevic?

TOM TATE: Yes.

DUNCAN-STRELEC: Do you know him by any other names?

TATE: Yes. Frank Kendt.

DUNCAN-STRELEC: Do you not find it unusual that a man has two names?

OBJECTION. QUESTION REJECTED

~ Amanda Duncan-Strelec and Ors v Thomas Richard Tate & Ors, Supreme Court NSW Equity Division, 29 June 2010 (official transcript, p143).

*****

“Chris Jordan, the tax commissioner, told a senator in Estimates recently that he could easily register that senator as a director and they would not even know about it. One expert says the laws currently are so lax that you could almost register your dog as a director.” 

~ Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh, Federal Parliament, 13 June 2017

*****

ABOUT TEN YEARS AGO, now Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate was engaged in a bitter legal dispute with former Albury Mayor Amanda Duncan-Strelec. It involved Mayor Tate selling land allegedly bought in partnership with Duncan-Strelec and her husband and then selling it on without their permission to a company owned and directed by his long-time business associate, Francis Kovacevic. Not only that, but Tate’s mate, Francis “Frank” Kovacevic, under his alias Frank Kendt, was an undischarged bankrupt and therefore legally unable to be the director of any company. Nevertheless, in future court proceedings Tate’s dealings with the land were endorsed and he went on to become Gold Coast mayor. Duncan-Strelec was left penniless and, eventually, bankrupt.

How did all this happen? How is it possible to register under multiple names to bypass the provisions of Australia's corporations and bankruptcy law to extract assets and treasure from unsuspecting members of the public? Why didn’t the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), the police or the bankruptcy trustees do anything about it? Is there anything we can do to stop it? And did Mayor Tate know he was dealing with a bankrupt?

Independent Australia investigates…

THE MAN WITH FOUR NAMES

Francis “Frank” Kovacevic is a smooth talker. Blonde, six-foot-tall and carrying a muscular physique, he is the sort of person who’s noticed when he walks into a room.

Where and when was he born? Well, this is where things become a little murkier.

According to sources close to him, Frank was born to Croatian parents who emigrated to Australia in the 1960s — but to where exactly?

According to ASIC records, Frank Kovacevic was born either at place and date unknown...

 

Or on 1 October in Queanbeyan, NSW, in either 1961 or 1962 ...

 

Or on 1 October 1962, in nearby Canberra, ACT:

 

Sources say Canberra in 1962 is most probably the correct birthplace, but it is difficult to know for sure. Frustratingly, ASIC does not ask for proposed directors to prove their identity. It is also not a crime for directors to register false or multiple details in ASIC, unless there can be proved an intent to defraud.

This name first appears in the ASIC register in 8 February 1988 and is not listed as being a company director from 10 July 1992 until 29 August 2006.

As confirmed in court by Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate, one of Kovacevic’s alternative identities is Frank Kendt. This claim, made under oath, has been verified by multiple independent sources. One source told IA they understood the name Kendt came from a Hollywood movie, though IA could not establish which one.

It is perhaps a sign of vanity on the part of Kovacevic that Kendt is listed in ASIC as being born more than five years later than his supposed real birth date, on 15 April 1967.

Again, there are multiple birthplaces listed, including Dubrovnik, Croatia.

 

Frank Kendt, Dubrovnik, appears on the register only briefly — between 18 March 2013 and 15 December 2014. Frank Kendt, Canberra first appears in ASIC between 24 January 2002. There is a period when he disappears, from 21 June 2004 and 22 June 2007, which was when he was bankrupt and thus disqualified from managing corporations. Kendt frequently swaps places with Francis Kovacevic, Canberra, as director of several of the same companies between and 22 July 2007 and 10 May 2010. 

Kovacevic’s other confirmed identity is Frank Kaye, also listed as being born 1 October 1962 in Canberra:

 

Kaye was listed as a company director in various companies in ASIC from between 18 June 1980 until 10 July 1999, not long before Kendt became Kovacevic's favoured alias in 2002.

The other extremely likely alias we found for Frank Kovacevic is Francis Zadro, listed as being born back in 1 October 1961 in Canberra and as the director of some of the same companies as Kovacevic.

 

Zadro appears in ASIC on 4 December 2015 and disappears on 18 July 2016.

Francis Kovacevic, the man with four names, three birthdays and three birthplaces in two different countries.

The question that needs to be asked is: why would anyone create so many different identities? The most obvious conclusion is an intent to mislead.

 

FRANK KOVACEVIC/KENDT AND MAYOR TOM TATE

According to an affidavit signed by him on 19 August 2008, Francis Kovacevic has been a business partner and friend of Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate since about 1998 — around the same time our sources say both men settled on the Gold Coast.

 

According to sources who have known Kovacevic for even longer than Tate, Kovacevic was a deal maker, not an outright crook. It wasn’t as if he intended to ruin people, said the source, but if it happened, as it sometimes did, he always made sure he had an exit strategy.

Said one source: 

“It was all about the deal. It wasn’t that Frank set out to rip people off, but if a deal went South – as they so often did with Frank – he would quickly move on and let the chips fall where they lay. If that meant someone else losing a lot of money, that was fine by Frank as long as it wasn’t him. But it should also be said that many deals did work out and a lot of people have made money with Frank.”

Tate and Kovacevic knew each other through Bartercard, where Kovacevic sometimes worked as a representative. Bartercard is a service that allows the exchange goods and services without using cash, or without a direct swap. It is an ideal medium for slick wheeler dealers to meet and attempt to get the better of each other. The pair had done deals together for years before Tate got Kovacevic to help him get out of a sticky situation in Albury.

In 2005, Tate had gone into the property development business with the former Albury mayor, Amanda Duncan-Strelec and her civil engineer husband, David Strelec.

On 11 November 2005, Tate and the Duncan-Strelec’s bought a block of land on the outskirts of Albury for the purpose of sub-division and sale. The land was purchased through a company called Wamego Pty Ltd, in which each side was intended to own half. The joint venture was designed so that Tate would provide the initial capital, Amanda Duncan-Strelec would look after Council compliance and David Strelec would look after the practical side of the project.

(Image via Border-Mail)

 

By 26 February 2006, however, Tate had already begun secretly negotiating to sell the property to Frank Kovacevic.

In June 2006, the Duncan-Strelecs paid their share of the deposit — something wealthy money-man Tate later rather bizarrely claimed in court was a “loan” to him. Around the same time, Tate told the Duncan-Strelecs he had a buyer for the land. Alarmed by this, on 25 October 2006, the Duncan-Strelecs put a caveat over the Wamego land. Nevertheless, on 30 November 2006, Tom Tate executed a share sale agreement for Wamego with Frank Kovacevic.

On 22 December 2006, an injunction was put in place to prevent any dealings with the land. In a 20-minute conversation on 19 January 2007, during which she took contemporaneous notes, Amanda Duncan-Strelec allegedly she told Kovacevic about the injunction, about which he claimed to have no previous knowledge. Kovacevic also allegedly told her then that he had no prior association or relationship with Tom Tate.

The sale of the shares of Wamego by Tate to Kovacevic was finally settled on 30 November 2007, with Tate walking away with a healthy profit. On 24 October 2008, this share sale agreement was found to have been in contempt of court and, on 27 February 2009, a sequestration order was issued over the land. However, due to Duncan-Strelec’s solicitors negligently failing to lodge this sequestration order, the Bank of Queensland were able to seize the land from Kovacevic in 2009 for loan default.

Former Albury Mayor Amanda Duncan-Strelec initiated court action against future mayor Tom Tate in 2010. She was forced to self-represent after her legal representatives abandoned her on the eve of the hearing. Her action failed and costs were awarded to Tate, leaving the Duncan-Strelec’s virtually destitute.

Perhaps she may have had more success had the judge permitted Tate to be cross-examined about Kovacevic’s alias — Frank Kendt.

 

FRANK THE PHOENIX

When Francis Kovacevic entered into a share sale agreement for Wamego Pty Ltd with Tom Tate on 30 November 2006, up until 22 June 2007, his alter ego Frank Kendt was bankrupt.

 

Also, during that period, Francis Kovacevic was, at various times, director and secretary of two companies, something explicitly forbidden by Australia's Corporations Act.

 

Bankrupts are also disqualified from numerous other activities via the Bankruptcy Act 1966, including trading in shares and taking on new debts without the permission of their trustee. It is, in fact, a criminal offence to breach the provisions of the Bankruptcy Act and parties have, in recent years, been gaoled for obtaining credit and payments without disclosing the fact they were undischarged bankrupts.

In a further twist, one of the companies Kovacevic was director for whilst bankrupt, Kingaroy Piggeries Pty Ltd, was used to create forestry bonds that were included as part of the consideration for Wamego Pty Ltd:

Ultimately, these bonds were proven to be worthless, with not a single tree ever being planted.

 

ASIC-KENING CASE OF NEGLECT

It is ASIC’s role to enforce Australia’s Corporations Act, including regulating officeholders of registered companies. Had ASIC not allowed Kovacevic to trade while bankrupt by using an alternative identity, the Duncan-Strelecs may never have lost their share of the Albury land and been themselves forced into bankruptcy.

In 2010, Amanda Duncan-Strelec made a complaint to ASIC about Kovacevic having multiple names in ASIC, as well as being a director while bankrupt (amongst other things). To support her allegations, she provided a significant amount of information to the Commission, including much of what has been provided in this article, including Tate’s sworn testimony in court, several potential witnesses and company details.

In response, in a letter to Duncan-Strelec on 4 November 2010, ASIC representative Dea Tjahjana said that

‘ASIC assesses every complaint it receives in order to ascertain whether there has been conduct in contravention of the Corporations Act 2001…. ASIC must act in the public interest….’

Tjahjana also confirmed that

‘… section 260B of the [Corporations] Act stipulates that a person is disqualified from managing companies if a person is an undischarged bankrupt …. [and] … Mr Frank Kendt was discharged from bankruptcy on 22 June 2007…’

But despite ASIC affirming these points, they refused to pursue Kovacevic.

Their reason? The fact that Francis Kovacevic and Frank Kendt had different addresses on the ASIC corporate register [IA emphasis]:

… Mr Kovacevic and Mr Kendt have different addresses registered on ASIC’s Corporate Register.

Accordingly, while I note the comments in the affidavits you provided that Mr Kovacevic may have represented himself as Mr Kendt, ASIC is not satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Mr Kovacevic is, in fact, the same person as Mr Kendt; or that they have breached the Act.

ASIC has the powers of a standing Royal Commission, with the ability to conduct wide-ranging investigations and compel witnesses to answer questions, yet the extent of its enquiries was what was on the public registers — something it does not police in any way. Despite this and even after agreeing Francis Kovacevic may have been representing himself as Frank Kendt, it declined to investigate further.

This was a perplexing decision by ASIC, given the only other two alternatives to Kovacevic having set up an alias in ASIC were that he

  1. had stolen the identity of the real Frank Kendt — a serious crime; or
  2. was impersonating Frank Kendt with the actual person’s permission — strongly indicative of some sort of conspiracy.

Amanda Duncan-Strelec was “bitterly disappointed” by ASIC’s lack of interest:

I am bitterly disappointed that ASIC failed in their duty of care when they refused to investigate my complaint about Tate and Kovacevic. Particularly about Kovacevic being a director of a number of companies in the name of Kovacevic and his alias, Frank Kendt. I would have thought, at the very least, that they would have written to Kovacevic and Kendt and asked them to provide photographic identification, along with a passport and/or birth certificate to prove they were legitimate.

Due to the incompetence of ASIC, a number of people, four that I know of, have been sent bankrupt due to their dealings with Tate and Kovacevic. I am worried that there are other innocent victims out there who are unaware that they are holding worthless bonds.

This could have been prevented if ASIC had done their job and investigated my complaint, particularly as I supplied them with written evidence to support my complaint.

To add insult to injury, when we went bankrupt due to Tate and Kovacevic perpetrating a fraudulent property scam on us, using worthless forestry bonds as collateral, ASIC had the hide to send us a letter warning us not to own or be a director of a company during our bankruptcy period, yet Kovacevic/Kendt was director of a number of companies simultaneously, some of them under administration and ASIC refused to even acknowledge this, let alone investigate it.

My husband and I worked hard all our lives to fund our retirement and educate our children. We paid high taxes in the process, only to be shafted by the very organisation that is supposed to be a watchdog and ensure due diligence in how companies are established and operate. In this case, they have been grossly incompetent, if not negligent in their duty of care.

 

NOT SO TRUSTEE

Frank Kendt had two trustees appointed to manage his affairs while he was declared bankrupt.

Bankruptcy trustees hold statutory obligations under the Australian Financial Security Authority (AFSA) standards to protect the interests of creditors and the general public. By not sufficiently investigating whether Kendt was still pursuing his business interests in clear breach of the Bankruptcy Act, perhaps under other aliases, it is possible these trustees were in breach of these duties — although that would be for a court to determine.

IA contacted one of the trustees, John Park – the senior managing director of FTI Consulting – several times to ask him about Frank Kendt and Francis Kovacevic, but he declined to take our calls or respond to our detailed emails.

 

KILLING THE PHOENIX

In late May 2017, the Australian Labor Party announced plans for new measures to track down on phoenix companies – those that go broke and then rise from the ashes, leaving creditors, employees and sub-contractors out of pocket.

Phoenix companies are often associated with the construction industry and, as the Guardian reported on 24 May 2017, the problem is immense:

‘The Australian Tax Office recently told a Senate inquiry that 19,800 businesses potentially “illegitimately” built their wealth through fraudulent phoenix activity. It estimated $1.8bn in tax debt was owed by these entities.’

It is also seemingly on the increase, with the Guardian reporting that a May 2017 Australian Government consultation paper

‘… said the government [had] examined 650 cases between 2013 and 2015, and found one in seven insolvencies involved instances of “sharp corporate practices” such as business restructures to avoid paying entitlements and illegal phoenix activity, which it said was on the rise.’

In the words of the ATO Senate submission, this phoenix activity is

‘… a serious threat to the integrity of our financial, employment, regulatory, taxation and superannuation systems – harming both these creditors and all Australians.’

Under Labor’s plan, prospective company directors would need to show 100 points of identification before being able to be placed on the register. This number would be linked to a unique identifier, such as a driver’s licence or tax file number, thereby allowing enforcement bodies, such as ASIC and the police, to follow up on any alleged phoenix activity.

The Turnbull Government last week released a response to the phoenix director issue, however it did not include the 100 point ID check — arguably the most essential part of the plan.

This simple requirement would probably have stopped Amanda Duncan-Strelec ever crossing paths with Frank Kovacevic, who is still operating unhindered as a businessman on the Gold Coast. Though complaints have been made about him to the Queensland Police and there was a current investigation listed on the Queensland Police database in April 2017, thus far there does not appear to be any genuine interest in pursuing him.

His business partner, Tom Tate, became Gold Coast Mayor in April 2012, at his second attempt. He was re-elected in 2016. As alluded to by last night's ABC Four Corners, none of the constant scandals surrounding him appear to stick to “Teflon” Tom.

*****

AMANDA DUNCAN-STRELEC: Mr Tate, did you enter into… When we came up to Surfers Paradise to pay our deposit to you in June 2006 and you put to David that you had an offer on the land, where had that offer come from?

TOM TATE: The offer for the land?

DUNCAN-STRELEC: Mm-hmm, for Wamego?

TATE: There was discussion with Frank Kendt.

DUNCAN-STRELEC: In his … as Frank Kendt?

TATE: Frank Kovacevic or Kendt.

DUNCAN-STRELEC: What was his legal name? Do you know, Mr Tate?

TATE: I didn’t ask him, you could call him Frank and that’s all I know.

~ Amanda Duncan-Strelec and Ors v Thomas Richard Tate & Ors, Supreme Court NSW Equity Division, 29 June 2010 (official transcript, pp143-144).

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Find out more about this story HERE.

You can follow managing editor Dave Donovan on Twitter @davrosz.

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