An investigative journalist doggedly chasing “a bloody good story” led to his unwitting involvement in a million-dollar blackmail scheme, a jury has heard.
Former 60 Minutes reporter Stephen Barrett testified in the NSW Supreme Court on Monday that he was never made aware of a plan to blackmail $5 million from the masterminds behind an alleged $105 million tax fraud scheme.
The Crown says the seasoned journalist accepted a $2000 cash payment to participate in blackmail following a January 2017 breakfast meeting with property developer Daniel Hausman.
But Barrett says this is “rubbish”.
The 63-year-old says Hausman, who became his primary source for the scoop, made claims involving one of the Australian Taxation Office’s highest serving officials.
“He said … Adam Cranston was ripping off what he termed mum and dad investors and his father (Michael Cranston) was implicated in some way.”
The Plutus Payroll tax fraud scheme allegedly skimmed money such as GST and superannuation owed to the ATO through second-tier companies headed by straw or shadow directors, the jury has earlier been told.
Some of these penniless directors, or “victims,” lived in caravans, and some had received a $6 million bill from the tax department, Barrett was told.
The plan was to meet the masterminds of this alleged scheme “to get the monies returned back, to right the wrong,” Barrett said.
“I said I’m interested but I need to see proof.”
He then continually asked for a taxation assessment letter or some form of documentation, cautious the allegations were ripe for a defamation case, he said.
After several of his attempts were stymied Barrett became “cranky,” but felt he had to remain on-side with his source.
After conducting his own research Barrett sent Hausman a message saying “if what you tell me is spot on then we have a tiger by the tail”.
“What does that mean?” Barrett’s lawyer Clive Steirn SC asked.
“(It’s) a bloody good story,” Barrett said.
He then phoned A Current Affair producer Grant Williams after seeing Adam Cranston in a high-speed car crash and hearing he owned “expensive toys,” and possibly a plane.
“I could see the vision … life in the fast lane,” Barrett said.
“I then said to Grant Williams ‘do you want me to pursue this’?”
“(He) replied ‘that’s a stupid bloody question, of course we do’.”
At their last meeting at the Art Gallery of NSW cafe on May 16, 2017, Hausman pulled out an affidavit detailing the inner workings of the alleged Plutus Payroll fraud, and an envelope containing $2000.
He now had his “explosive” document and was being financially engaged to keep working on the matter, Barrett said.
But two days later his house was raided by the Australian Federal Police and all relevant material was seized, he said.
The following morning he called Williams and let him know the story was breaking about the “tax fraud”.
“Grant Williams said ‘oh my god it was you, Bar Rat, it was you Steve, I was trying to remember who it was who told me about it’,” he said.
The Crown argues Barrett was not purely pursuing a story but received multiple cash payments to place pressure on the alleged Plutus fraudsters.
Barrett has pleaded not guilty to acting in a joint party to blackmail.
Michael Cranston was acquitted in February of misusing his position to help his son and no longer works as deputy commissioner at the ATO.
The trial continues.