The unveiling of Australia’s largest tax fraud scheme in history has recently come to light, with the release of compelling evidence that had been kept confidential until now. This evidence, consisting of incriminating text messages, covertly recorded phone conversations, and discreetly placed hidden cameras, proved crucial in exposing a sophisticated tax fraud operation worth $105 million. The evidence, comprising an extensive collection of 28,000 pages of documents and 70 hours of intercepted phone, video, and audio material, was showcased to the public for the first time through a comprehensive investigation conducted by Four Corners, which aired on Monday evening.
The Plutus Payroll scam, at the center of this controversy, allegedly involved a group of individuals who exploited their company, Plutus Payroll, which was responsible for managing payroll obligations on behalf of various clients, including government departments and IT firms. Instead of fulfilling their duty of transferring clients’ GST and PAYG tax payments to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), the conspirators allegedly redirected these funds to a network of subsidiary companies, controlled by “straw” or “dummy” directors who acted on behalf of the true owners. These subsidiary entities then allegedly siphoned off a significant portion of the funds, reportedly up to 40%, by diverting them through various means, such as fraudulent invoices, while only remitting a fraction to the ATO. However, the scheme began to unravel when the ATO noticed substantial discrepancies in the amounts received.
The individuals involved in this fraudulent operation, according to Four Corners’ investigation, had their roots in a meeting that took place at a strip club in Sydney’s CBD in early 2014. Among the attendees were Adam Cranston, a known corporate player with experience in business turnaround and a passion for racing cars, and Peter Larcombe, a former fund manager and property investor associated with an outlaw motorcycle group. Also present were Jason Onley, a former professional snowboarder active in Sydney’s insolvency scene, and Simon Anquetil and Josh Kitson, with Anquetil being a tech entrepreneur with the foundational knowledge for the scheme and Kitson an experienced figure in the recruitment industry.
During this strip club meeting, the group allegedly discussed the establishment of a payroll company designed to generate substantial profits rapidly. To ensure confidentiality, Adam Cranston reportedly distributed new mobile phones to prevent authorities from monitoring their conversations. Following the meeting, a series of text messages between Anquetil and Kitson ensued, culminating in the birth of their company, Plutus Payroll, named after the Greek god of wealth. By the end of 2015, the operation was processing over $50 million in payments, with the conspirators allegedly pocketing more than $20 million.
In May 2016, while working at one of their offices in Double Bay, Adam Cranston and Jason Onley encountered a group of individuals believed to be associated with the Comanchero motorcycle gang. After demanding money, the intruders assaulted Onley and threatened his family. Under duress, the pair agreed to comply, marking the beginning of their troubles. Around the same time, Peter Larcombe, who had been in Los Angeles, urgently messaged Adam Cranston, expressing concern over the situation and hinting at the impending collapse of their enterprise.
In September 2016, the Australian Federal Police launched Operation Elbrus, a dedicated task force comprising up to 20 agents, to investigate the syndicate. By October of that year, the conspirators’ phones were tapped, enabling the AFP to eavesdrop on their conversations and gather insights into their activities. Additionally, a concealed camera was installed in their office in Miranda, Sydney, strategically positioned above the desk of Adam Cranston’s sister, Lauren Cranston. The surveillance footage revealed her involvement in the scheme as she played a key role in managing funds for the primary conspirators.
Further monitoring devices were discreetly planted in the syndicate’s various offices across Sydney, capturing crucial conversations, including one involving the group’s lawyer, Dev Menon. Allegedly, Menon provided legal advice on evading the ATO. The recorded conversations also featured Adam Cranston admitting that the scheme was defrauding people, claiming that Plutus was a lucrative enterprise operating like a Ponzi scheme, with the ATO unaware of the fraudulent nature of their operations.
In April 2017, the syndicate faced a significant setback when Plutus Payroll’s accounts were subjected to a garnishee notice, allowing the ATO to collect outstanding tax debts directly from the company’s bank accounts or debtors. Adam Cranston reached out to his father, Michael Cranston, a deputy commissioner at the ATO, seeking assistance. However, he provided a selective version of events, expressing concern over Plutus’s inability to fulfill its obligations and the difficulty in contacting the tax office.
A few days later, Michael Cranston informed Adam that he suspected his son might be under scrutiny by the ATO. On May 17, 2017, armed with substantial evidence, the police made their move. The key conspirators were arrested, and their homes were raided, resulting in the seizure of $15 million in cash, numerous vehicles, residential properties, bank accounts, share trading accounts, firearms, jewelry, art, vintage wine, and a safe-deposit box containing at least $1 million. Sixteen individuals were charged in connection with the operation.
During the subsequent trial in 2022, Adam Cranston, Lauren Cranston, Dev Menon, and Jason Onley were found guilty in 2023. Lauren Cranston received a prison sentence of eight years in March 2023. Justice Anthony Payne noted that her role in the scheme resulted in a gain of only $181,000 and attributed her involvement to a misguided sense of loyalty to her brother. The sentencing for Adam Cranston, Dev Menon, and Jason Onley is yet to be determined and is expected to take place in the coming weeks.