Stuart Robert ducks question about offshore business

Coalition financial services spokesman Stuart Robert is refusing to say whether he had been doing business with an offshore entity controlled by his business partner while also serving as a minister.

As the MP faces an inquiry into his business links and lobbying for lucrative contracts, it can be revealed he was holding shares in businesses related closely to companies and offshore transactions that involved some of the most disreputable players in the industry.

He would later shape calls to regulate some financial services in an industry slowly being mired in scandal along with $2 billion from Malaysian government pension funds.

It was John Margerison – his old friend and former fundraiser and owner of a firm lobbying for government work – who had set up the company. It allowed $18 million worth of stolen money to wash through Australia before funding financier Jho Lho’s parties with Alicia Keys or simply disappearing.

The Malta casino

But on Sunday Mr Robert doubled down on his refusal to detail shareholdings held with his business partner while in cabinet. He denied any of his partnerships with the Margerison companies presented a conflict with his public role, even his spot on the Asian Development Bank.

But according to his last declared shareholding before he entered the ministry, a company Mr Robert had part-owned was about to strike it lucky.

Invictus Biotechnology was sent a $2 million cash payment and more in stock by a company controlled by his friend in what was declared to the market as a friendly takeover bid.

That company was repackaged and became a vehicle to send funds to America. The last time he had declared his shareholding it was in a trust ultimately controlled by Mr Margerison.

Glenn Tong, CEO of Invictus, said that Mr Robert had been a shareholder but he had not learnt of this until after the takeover but believed he had long since divested his holding.

One year earlier, a Margerison company was paid $3.5 million for the lease of the warehouse by the government services department Mr Robert had overseen as minister but not, he says, influenced in any way.

But that Mr Robert was potentially exposed to such transactions even though his affairs were managed by a trust makes the conflict more direct than previous overlaps of interests, especially given his trustee’s vast offshore experience.

For Mr Margerison, complex arrangements such as this were old hat; other former directors, not him, were banned for 10 years for alleged breaches associated with the Malaysian money.

He took over the reins of that company, Avestra, from Yosse Goldberg, a man who has been thought missing since, at the peak of WA Inc, he managed to buy Fremantle Gas and Coke for a few hundred thousand dollars, only to sell it to the government for $15 million.

Mr Margerison registered a company to a restaurant inside a Malta casino: MyFX Limited, as was exposed by a leak of offshore account data.

More recently he was joined in business with Matthew Freeman, a young advisor to Donald Trump who had been close to the jailed chief of staff Paul Manafort before following him into the field of foreign lobbying.

Mr Trump’s chief of staff had once done a nice stint in lobbying and had repped even east African dictators but was imprisoned for bank fraud and tax fraud.

Mr Freeman’s mentor Mr Manafort had boasted in an email to friends that he had secured access to senior figures from Malcolm Turnbull to Josh Frydenberg on short notice in his trip representing the environmental lobby.

“Also FYI Matt Canavan resigned this morning from the Australian Cabinet,” he wrote to a friend. “So scratch him off the list.”

Mr Margerison and Mr Robert combined for their next venture, an unsuccessful attempt at commercialising cryogenics therapy, Cryo Australia, that left them holding the bag for $400,000 after a director had acted independently.

Staying mum

Mr Robert had directed a company, Promedical Equipment, that was fined $63,000 for allegedly unlawfully advertising a COVID-19 testing kit, a claim an American company said had duped it into making an announcement to investors. 

A company directed by Roberts was fined over advertising for its RAT kits. Photo: Getty

A firm denial

Those shares had gone up by 400 per cent reportedly on that news, but the company is thought to have disputed accounts of what was said by whom. The product was banned expressly by the FDA.

One court concluded the American company must have known or perhaps been part of the increasing trend of bid rigging on contracts, but they ultimately faced charges for being misleading.

Mr Robert’s company’s allegedly unusual behaviour did put the former minister in the middle of not unprecedented questions.

“Mr Robert has complied with all requirements for the Register of Members’ interests and Ministerial Standards,” he said via a spokesman. “To suggest or imply otherwise would be false.”

He insists he had no say on contracts as a minister.

In 2018 he told a delegation of financial planners that the Royal Commission into financial planning had raised some issues to be looked at.

“It appeared that Stuart Robert was supportive of us,” one financial planner recalled of raising concerns about the inquiry.

“He said that Australians don’t like paying fees.”

Mr Margerison owns a health conglomerate that bought up disability providers and received $40 million in payments from the NDIS  in 2020.

But now his affairs are facing fresh scrutiny kicked off by a leaked cache of emails that revealed Mr Robert had opened doors for clients of his, multinationals bidding on lucrative government IT work.

Those contracts will now come before an inquiry.

Mr Margerison did not respond to a request for comment.

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