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Blackall, David; Sykes, Jolyon; Telford, John; Baker, Clifton --- "Trio hedge funds: government regulators and the public's right to know" [2016] PrecedentAULA 34; (2016) 134 Precedent 33


By David Blackall, Jolyon Sykes, John Telford and Clifton Baker

This article focuses on a freedom of information (FOI)[1] campaign by a group called Victims of Financial Fraud (VOFF), which is seeking information on the largest fraud in Australian superannuation history, according to the Australian Crime Commission.[2] The collapse of the Trio Capital Group (Trio) raises issues concerning the regulators, ASIC and APRA, in the context of what ANU professor of law, John Braithwaite, calls the ‘democratic ideal, incorporating notions of deliberative democracy and restorative justice’.[3]
The Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) and the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA) have statutory obligations to protect the public interest, and they have substantial powers.[4] In carrying out their functions, particularly where serious fraudulent activity is involved, their performance needs to be open and transparent. When regulators appear defensive, opaque and unresponsive, affected parties and concerned citizens may secure some public accountability and insights into their behaviour through Freedom of Information (FOI) applications.

According to VOFF, Trio’s failure was not a result of the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), and its investors were not taking unwarranted risks. The failure was inevitable, part of a so-called Ponzi scheme whereby invested funds are stolen and false dividends paid, not from investments, but from newly invested funds. Incoming capital is used to pay these dividends, creating the impression of a well-run and safe investment vehicle. The funding of dividends is then stopped, leading to a collapse of the corporation.[5] The impact on the community is significant; as Clinton Free and Pamela Murphy conclude: ‘fraud has a greater economic impact on society than any other category of crime’.[6] That impact can be psychological as well as economic, and some of that psychological damage is detailed in the Parliamentary Joint Committee (PJC) Report on Trio.[7] This crime destroyed many investors’ superannuation. People lost houses, marriages, jobs and even, tragically, lives.

Given the multiplicity of co-offenders in the Trio fraud,[8] many with prior convictions, the authorities should have been on notice and provided vital information to investors. The operation was conducted at different times and places, pooling resources in an opaque hedge-fund-driven structure. Of the three people at the centre of Trio – Jack Flader, Shawn Richard and Eugene Liu – Richard is the only one to have been been convicted. He served a prison sentence for ‘engaging in dishonest conduct in relation to financial services knowing that conduct to be dishonest’; in other words, fraud.


This year (2016), New Jersey-born Flader faced court after the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) charged him with ‘entering into or becoming concerned in a money-laundering arrangement, contrary to s328 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002’ (UK).[9] The jury found that there was insufficient evidence to prove that he and his co-accused knew they were handling the proceeds of crime and acquitted them.[10]
Flader’s offences were alleged[11] to have occurred between March 2003 and December 2008, the same period as the Trio fraud, and he was alleged to have laundered the proceeds of an earlier fraud.[12]

When his UK company failed in 2007, APRA did not investigate the possibility that as one of its principals, Flader might be engaged in similar activities in Australia. The first warning had come in 2003 when interests associated with Flader purchased Tolhurst Capital Limited, the holder of the Registrable Superannuation Entity licence from its previous owners in late 2003. Tolhurst later became Trio, using the same licence. The warnings continued to be ignored until, in 2012, the Parliamentary Joint Committee Trio Inquiry recommended that the AFP consider developing an ‘organisational focus’ on superannuation fraud; in other words, proactive policing.[13]

On 22 June 2010, the creditors of Trio put it into liquidation and Wright Global in Australia, owned and controlled by Flader, followed in September.[14] In his subsequent NSW Supreme Court judgment, Garling J named Flader as having improperly transferred $120 million of Australian investors’ money offshore. The money was subsequently used to purchase shares in US companies at inflated prices, from foreign companies he controlled.[15] Garling J also named Flader as the ultimate owner of Trio Capital.

Flader had been managing director of Zetland Financial in Hong Kong, Pacific Continental’s parent company. The Hong Kong address used by Zetland when it came under scrutiny over Pacific Continental was the same address used by Century Investments Holdings, the parent company of Astarra Strategic Fund (ASF), where some of the missing Trio funds were placed. Flader is also mentioned in the files of the Spanish National Market Commission. Spanish investigators warned investors in 2003 about the Spanish arm of Pacific Continental, linking it to a notorious unlicensed share-dealing firm in Asia called International Asset Management (IAM).[16]

An earlier document, obtained from the US Securities and Exchange Commission by VOFF under FOI, indicates that in April 2000, Flader obtained 65,828 shares in a company called eSat, with Pacific Continental acting as broker. ESat, a worthless stock, was sold in boiler room operations; that is, phone-based stockbrokers aggressively marketing dubious stocks, often to naive investors.[17] Between 2000 and 2010, there were many other instances of Flader’s name appearing in association with failed companies or dubious transactions.

On 29 October 2013, ASIC announced that there was insufficient evidence to prove that Flader had breached Australian law, despite its efforts, those of the AFP and their overseas regulatory counterparts – so ASIC finalised its investigation of him.[18]


Flader’s protégé was Shawn Richard, who adopted the name ‘Shawny Cash’ on Facebook after receiving $1 million AUD in the last days of Wright Global Investments HP Ltd (WGI). Richard was the investment manager of ASF, and he was also a director of Astarra Asset Management Pty Ltd (AAM), an authorised representative of WGI and Trio. In July 2011, he was convicted in the NSW Supreme Court on two counts of dishonest conduct, and sentenced to a reduced jail term of two-and-a-half years for his role in the disappearance of $26.6 million from Trio.

In sentencing, Garling J listed Richard’s plea of guilty, his co-operation with ASIC, and the assistance he provided to his trustee in bankruptcy in recovering funds, as mitigating factors. The details of his assistance to ASIC were in a confidential document, Exhibit B, which was part of the judgment. Exhibit B also enabled Richard to serve his sentence in special protected areas within the prison, suggesting that he may have provided information about other criminals who were still at large.[19] This implication was later partially negated by ASIC’s statement that it had insufficient evidence to proceed against Flader and ceased investigating him. Exhibit B has not been released.[20]

Richard’s sworn statement on 3 December 2010, the basis of his sentence, was not released voluntarily, prompting a successful FOI application by VOFF. According to that statement, Richard knowingly followed Flader’s instructions in relation to the operation of AAM, Trio, WGI and AFM, arranging the transfer of Australian investors’ funds from complex investment schemes and superannuation funds to overseas funds that were controlled by Flader, while Richard represented himself to investors as the controller of those entities.[21] Over $16.2 million of ASF and superannuation monies were paid into Flader-controlled funds, ‘in circumstances where AAM received payments of over $5.3 million to further the scheme (i,. to pay false dividends) and Richard personally received payments of over $1.3 million’.[22] Despite the inside knowledge of the scheme shown in his statement, and his subsequent conviction, Richard was not subpoenaed to appear in the later Wright Global case. According to Garling J and from Richard’s statement, Richard’s had numerous accomplices within this network of hedge funds and companies..


With Richard, Liu was the other director of Trio at the time it went into receivership. In February 2013, ASIC banned him permanently from providing financial services, finding that his misconduct occurred in connection with funds administered by ASF and Trio. His appeal against the ban was finally refused on 31 October 2014, and he joined the list of banned ex-Trio personnel.

In his sworn statement to ASIC during that appeal, Liu said that, in 2003, the owners of ASF (or Trio), mainly Richard, had a confusing style of management, involving the sacking of directors and installing new ones in rapid succession, sometimes without the new director’s knowledge or consent. He said he had been installed as director without his knowledge.[23] This management style complicated an already complex array of companies, directors and hedge funds. At the start of Liu’s employment, Dr Richard Sarkisian, a trader in convertible bonds in 2001 and 2002 who was operating Pacific Continental Securities based in New York, supervised Liu. Liu prepared prospective term sheets, contracts and corporate financing deals and forwarded them to Jack Flader for review and approval.[24]

Liu’s statement to ASIC of 20 June 2011 named Flader and Richard as well as 18 other possible co-offenders,[25] asserting that they would meet in Australia, the Philippines and Thailand.[26] The involvement of Flader and Richard, in association with several others who were at least suspected of fraudulent behaviour, should arguably have sounded the alarm with the regulators. As an example, Stuart Washington, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in early 2010,[27] echoed UK journalist Tony Hetherington in naming several people who should have been as well known to the Australian regulators as they were to Hetherington.[28] These instances of public discourse are surely leads that regulators might investigate.[29]


APRA[30] and ASIC both have public responsibilities to ensure that investors and financial consumers are confident and well informed.[31] However, it was a financial adviser, John Hempton who initially exposed Trio as a Ponzi fraud, writing to a number of journalists as well as to ASIC on 16 September 2009.[32] These journalists investigated and reported the connections between several individuals and corporate entities: joining the dots as journalists do. Hempton was instrumental in publicising Trio’s problems through his blog and elsewhere but, in March 2010, he acknowledged Dominick McCormick, the chief investment officer of Select Asset Management and his team as the originators.[33] McCormick had written to Hempton in July 2009, prompting Hempton’s analysis.

Two months later, McCormick listed 11 ‘red flags’ that, while not proving fraud were ‘certainly enough for any intelligent observer to be compelled to ask more questions or simply pass on the investment’. These indicators included the reportedly good returns in 2008 during the GFC and the youth and inexperience of the principals. He also pointed to shortcomings in Richard’s Product Disclosure Statement, a document accepted by ASIC.[34] However, two weeks subsequently elapsed before ASIC began to investigate, another two weeks before it issued an interim stop order, and a further month before it froze withdrawals. On 2 December 2009, APRA asked Trio to show cause why it should not be removed as trustee.[35]


After Trio was wound up and the losses became apparent, VOFF was incorporated in September 2012: to find where the money went, locate those responsible and to win compensation. Since then, VOFF has submitted over 430 FOI applications to government regulators, police and international bureaucracies.

In ‘Regulating the Regulators: Accountability of Australian Regulators’, Joanna Bird writes: ‘Studies indicate that transparency measures, such as FOI legislation, can merely encourage regulators “to hide away from being held to account” by ensuring that real decision-making is not recorded in a way that could be made public.’[36] FOI research is vital; while there are other avenues for disclosure and compensation, such as the discovery process in private litigation, these cannot be pursued without some understanding of what regulators knew and how they acted on information available. Ironically, VOFF has found that FOI is revealing a culture of defensiveness. Officials are restricting access to many documents under various laws, including s127 of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act 2001. Inexplicably, national security is often cited as a reason for the refusal to release information.


The jingoistic reference to investment being like Australian surfers swimming safely between the lifesavers’ flags, rather than risking the surf outside, originated in a speech made by ASIC’s Deputy Chairman, Jeremy Cooper, to the self-managed superannuation funds’ (SMSF) Professional Association in March 2009, around the time the Trio funds were disappearing. Cooper described investors with solid financial advice as being ‘between the flags’ and said, ‘many SMSFs are exercising discipline and continue to invest in blue chips, direct equities and term deposits’.[37]

The first edition of ASIC’s booklet, Investing between the flags: A practical guide to investing, published in November 2009, listed nine guidelines for investing safely, all of which the self-managed investors in Trio had followed. By this standard, Trio investors had invested wisely, and were swimming between the flags. Despite this, in April 2011, the then Minister for Superannuation, Bill Shorten, was reported in Wollongong’s local newspaper as saying that self-managed Trio victims took a dangerous risk by swimming outside the flags: ‘The swimming may be better, but it is more risky and you don’t have a lifeguard watching over you.’[38] Shorten repeated the phrase several times before 5th July 2012, when a VOFF delegation to APRA’s office in Sydney, attended by head of APRA, Ross Jones, head of ASIC, Greg Medcraft, and Shorten, forced Shorten to withdraw the statement.

This attitude seems to have been generally accepted, despite its lack of factual basis. Reputable investment advisers, including those whose clients became victims, did exercise caution when recommending investments, effectively anticipating ASIC’s advice. For example, ASIC warned against investing with fund managers offering over a 20 per cent return, but Trio’s return was 8-10 per cent.[39] Trio appeared to be overseen by reputable auditors, such as KPMG, as late as September 2009.[40] Ironically, it was the discrepancy between Trio’s dividends and others caught by the GFC that first alerted the whistleblowers.

ASIC warned against responding to unsolicited calls, investing without a Product Disclosure Statement, and dealing with financial advisers who are not licensed in Australia. Trio met all these conditions, but the advice to stay between the flags is of dubious value when unscrupulous operators know how to use the system to target investors. Trio was a premeditated fraud, a Ponzi scheme, and ASIC’s booklet was therefore ineffective, giving investors a false sense of security when ASIC’s published conditions for safe investing were apparently being met.

Victims have noticed the tendency in the post-GFC public discourse to replace the word ‘fraud’ with ‘collapse’. For example, journalist Patrick Durkin reported ASIC as having ‘grave concerns ... following collapses including Banksia Securities, Trio Capital, Storm Financial and MF Global’.[41] The PJC Report referred many times to the criminal nature of the collapse. As well as using the words ‘crime’ and ‘criminal’ 72 times, it makes statements such as ‘the fraud ... appears to be designed to take advantage of vulnerabilities in the superannuation system’.[42] The PJC Report recommended against including self-managed funds in the statutory compensation scheme, because to do so would include those ‘investing outside the flags’ alongside the more risk-averse SMSF and their managers.

Despite the planning behind Trio, which deceived many experienced fund managers, compensation was denied to many victims on what appears to be a legal technicality: they relied on expert advisers but were self-managed. The SMSF investors cheated by Trio are uncompensated and are likely to remain so. As whistleblower Hempton says, ‘I can't see why the clients of ARP Growth should be treated any differently to the clients of [competent advisers] – both were in self-managed super funds established in cookie-cutter fashion by their financial planners.’[43]


The Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act (AML-CTF) became law in 2006, continuing the legal framework of the agency Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC), which had been established in 1989 under earlier legislation. Money-laundering is the process by which criminals attempt to find safe havens for their profits and where they can avoid confiscation orders and AML-CTF’s reporting requirements.[44] Later, those proceeds can be made to appear legitimate.[45] AUSTRAC requires the reporting of movements of money into or out of Australia: in respect to Trio, ASIC’s website described the movement of the funds as follows:

‘Most of [Trio’s] assets were directed into what were called hedge funds, located in the Caribbean. There is little, if any, credible evidence that the purported investments were actually made, or if they were, that they have any realisable value. Most of the assets invested were subsequently lost.’[46]

VOFF submitted an FOI request, asking to see ASIC’s report to AUSTRAC which reported the disappearance of assets,[47] presumably overseas.[48] ASIC’s reply stated that there was no such report, suggesting that ASIC does not regard the reporting of the movement of large sums of money overseas to AUSTRAC as part of its responsibilities.[49]

VOFF’s FOI applications to AUSTRAC were more fruitful, revealing that between March and June 2009, Trio had transferred a total of $4,884,752 AUD, via Standard Chartered to EMA International Ltd in Hong Kong. In a separate case in 2012, Standard Chartered was charged and fined US$340 million for money-laundering funds of up to US$250 billion, allegedly for use by terrorist groups in Iran.[50]

AUSTRAC’s response to one FOI application states unequivocally that ‘AUSTRAC does not grant waivers for international funds transfers for reporting entities’.[51] This is apparently contradicted by a document later found on the AUSTRAC website, dated 9 May 2008, giving Absolute Alpha (Trio) exemption from all sections of the AML-CTF Act.[52] Nevertheless, AUSTRAC has provided comprehensive information under the FOI Act and is showing willingness to assist VOFF with its requests.

Another VOFF FOI request to ASIC sought documents of known and potential weaknesses in the financial system that can or may attract money-laundering and terrorist financing by exploiting weaknesses at the national and international levels. ASIC’s reply was that it had located relevant documents, but all are exempt under s33(a)(iii), s37(2)(b), s47C and s47E of the FOI Act; that is, those relating to national security, law enforcement, deliberative process and public interest.


In 2011, with Trio and the $1.67 billion loss reported by the industry superannuation fund MTAA very much in the news, Certified Practicing Accountants Australia published an issues paper based on a survey of superannuation fund members, highlighting some perceptions surrounding transparency in the industry. While not mentioning fraud, even in relation to Trio, the paper stated that inadequate governance and lack of transparency on the part of funds managers can lead to heavy losses and threaten the viability of the industry. [53] Ironically, in view of the story outlined here, the report includes quotes from the Deputy Chairman of APRA, Ross Jones, and ASIC Chairman, Greg Medcraft, calling for more transparency of funds and fund managers.[54]

Head of Responsible Entity Service for The Trust Company, Rupert Smoker, wrote to investors that ‘gatekeepers, including auditors, custodians, research houses and financial planners, have failed’.[55]

A market that is not fully informed, accountable, or transparent, is likely to be unfair to investors and more vulnerable to corruption. The media’s role as the Fourth Estate, using FOI if necessary and providing information in the public interest can ensure greater transparency. As Professor Braithwaite says: ‘[there is] virtue in the justice of the people and of their business organisations bubbling up into the justice of the law, and the justice of the law percolating down into the justice of the people and their commerce’.[56] The CPA’s issues paper adds: ‘ is important for adequate checks and measures to be in place to safeguard the system’s integrity and secure Australia’s retirement nest egg.[57] In a democracy, this should also apply to the regulators ASIC and APRA. When a shark attack takes place in full view between the flags, the absence of a response should concern us all.

David Blackall is an academic at the University of Wollongong.

Jolyon Sykes is a freelance journalism researcher and writer.

John Telford is on the executive of Victims of Financial Fraud Incorporated, Wollongong.

Clifton Baker is active in the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

[1] Federal, state and territory FOI legislation includes: Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth); Freedom of Information Act 1989 (ACT); Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (NSW); Information Act 2003 (NT); Right to Information Act 2009 (Qld); Freedom of Information Act 1991 (SA); Right to Information Act 2009 (Tas); Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Vic); and Freedom of Information Act 1992 (WA).

[2] Australian Crime Commission, Fraud, July 2013, (ACC Report) at p4. Available at

[3] John Braithwaite, 2006, Responsive Regulation and Developing Economies, The Australian National University, Australia. World Development Vol. 34, No. 5, pp884-98. Available at:

[4] Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) Act 1998, s8; Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) Act 2001, s1(2).

[5] For a more complete explanation of Ponzi schemes, see ASIC, Moneysmart. Available at:

[6] Clinton Free and Pamela R Murphy (2014), ‘The Ties that Bind: The Decision to Co-Offend in Fraud’, Contemporary Accounting Research, Vol. 32, Issue 1, Spring 2015, pp18-54, Abstract. Available at:

[7] Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services, Inquiry into the collapse of Trio Capital, May 2012, (PJC Report). Chapter 3. Committees/Joint/Corporations_and_Financial_ Services/Completed_inquiries/2010-13/trio/report/index.

[8] Ibid, Executive Summary, pxviii.

[9] SFO, Media Release, 13 January 2016. Available at:

[10] SFO, Media Release, 17 March 2016. Available at:

[11] There is a lack of detail in reporting of the hearing, probably to protect law enforcement information about detection of money-laundering.

[12] Nick Miller, 2016, ‘Australian ‘”Wolf of Wall Street” Jeffrey Revell-Reade spent or hid millions, court told’, 20 April.

[13] PJC Report, see note 7, pxxix.

[14] N G Singleton (liquidator), 2011, Affidavit in the matter of Trio Capital Limited, 23rd June, p6.

[15] R v Shawn Darrell Richard [2011] NSWSC 866, 7.

[16] Tony Hetherington, ‘Dark legacy of Pacific Continental crops up overseas’, This Is Money, 4 March 2010, pdf

[17] US SEC Form 144 20 April 2000. Copy in the writers’ possession.

[18] ASIC, Media Release, 13-294, 29 October 2013,

[19] Stuart Washington, ‘How investors in Trio backed the wrong horse with $426 million’, 27 March 2010,

[20] ASIC, Media Release, 12-116MR, 5 June 2012,

[21] Shawn D Richard, 2010, Statement of Shawn Darrell Richard, 3rd December, p2ff, Copy in the writers’ possession.

[22] R v Shawn Darrell Richard, note 16.

[23] Re Liu and ASIC [2014] AATA 817.

[24] ASIC, Statement in the matter of ARP Growth Fund & Paul Anthony Gresham by Eugene Liu, 20 June 2011. Copy in the writers’ possession.

[25] Cameron Anderson, Richard Bell, Thomas Burke, Marty Cohen, Richard Doyle, Paul Gresham, Bill Horgan, Matthew Littauer, Peter McDermott, David Millhouse, Rex Philpott, Richard Sarkisian, Mark Schroeder, Brendan Shanks-Collar, James Sutherland, Richard Telfer, Florissa Villavert and Phillip York.

[26] ASIC, Statement by Eugene Liu, note 25.

[27] Stuart Washington, ‘Penny stocks trail leads to super’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 February 2010,.

[28] Tony Hetherington, note 17.

[29] Mike Taylor, 2012, Should heads roll over Trio Capital? 24th May, Available at:

[30] APRA 2011, APRA Service Charter, December, p2. Available at:

[31] ASIC, 2012, ASIC Service Charter, September, page 2. Available at:

[32] John Hempton, Dark privatised social security story, 2 January 2010. Available 2010/01/dark-privatised-social-security-story.html; David Elliott, (Thomson Geer) ‘The Trio debacle – “the largest superannuation fraud in Australian history”: Part 1’, Australian Superannuation Law Bulletin, March 2015, p32.

[33] John Hempton, My tipper on Astarra, 19 March 2010:

[34] Dominick McCormick, ‘Is Trio Capital Australia's own Madoff affair?’, Money Management. 22 February 2010:

[35] PJC Report, note 7, p39.

[36] Joanna Bird, ‘Regulating the Regulators: Accountability of Australian Regulators’, Melbourne University Law Review, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp739-72, 26 July 2011; Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 12/50. Available at SSRN:

[37] J Cooper, Speech to the 2009 SPAA National Conference, 11 March 2009.

[38] Nicole Hasham, ‘Trio fallout: DIY investors “swimming outside flags”’, Illawarra Mercury, 14 April 2011:

[39] Bernard Lagan, ‘Inside the Offshore Fraud: The Villains and Victims of Australia’s Biggest Pension Scam’, The Global Mail, 17 January 2014:

[40] PJC Report, note 7, p39.

[41] Patrick Durkin, ‘ASIC’s investor exam plan ‘won’t work’’ 15 December 2012.

[42] PJC Report, note 7, ppxix and 146.


[44] Australian Criminal Code Act 1995, Schedule 400.9(2)(aa).

[45] Proceeds Of Crime Act 2002, Part 7 - Money Laundering Offences. Available at

[46] ASIC,, 28 May 2015.

[47] Corporations Act 2001 (Cth), s3(3).

[48] VOFF 2016, FOI No. 424, 22nd February. Copy in the writers’ possession.

[49] Letter, ASIC to VOFF, Reference ENF2013/8993, 9 May 2013. Copy in the writers’ possession.

[50] New York State Department of Financial Services, 2012, Re Standard Chartered Bank, New York Branch Consent Order Under New York Banking Law §44, 21 September. Available at

[51] E-mail, AUSTRAC to VOFF, Reference FOI No. 45 to AUSTRAC [SEC=UNOFFICIAL], from:, 31 May 2013.

[52] Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC), Exemptions made by the AUSTRAC CEO under the AML/CTF Act.

[53] CPA Australia, 2011, ‘Super Reporting: Do You Get the Picture?’, p6.

[54] Ibid, p2.

[55] Letter, Rupert Smoker, Head of Responsible Entity Services, The Trust Company – Investor Update – Trio Diversified Funds, 7 March 2012, in Submissions by Levitt Robinson on the Performance of the Australian Securities Investment Commission.

[56] Braithwaite, note 4, p885.

[57] CPA, note 54, p9.

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