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Drug-fuelled downfall of $105m tax scammer

SUPREME COURT
Adam Cranston has been jailed for directing a $105 million tax fraud. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Christian Gilles

The son of the former deputy commissioner of the Australian Taxation Office has been jailed for at least 10 years after orchestrating a $105m tax fraud.

Adam Cranston, who called himself “the biggest fraudster in NSW”, appeared in the NSW Supreme Court via audiovisual link on Tuesday after being found guilty of conspiring to dishonestly cause a loss to the Commonwealth and conspiring to deal with proceeds of a crime worth millions of dollars.

Throughout the years of operating the tax scam, Cranston admitted he had regularly been using ketamine (a powerful anaesthetic), cocaine, and LSD (also known as acid).

SUPREME COURT
Adam Cranston was involved in the $105m tax scam and money laundering scheme since its inception in 2014. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Christian Gilles

The 36-year-old looked anxious and concerned in his prison greens and a neon high-vis vest as he was sentenced for defrauding taxpayers out of more than $105m over three years.

After a trial that ran for nearly 11 months, a jury found Cranston guilty of directing the tax scam and laundering money through his company, Plutus Payroll.

Between 2014 to 2017, the court was told taxes were siphoned off from the payroll company into second-tier companies instead of being paid to the ATO.

The court heard Cranston and his co-accused Jason Onley, 53, were the directors of the second tier companies which were the “engines” and “epicentre” of the tax scam.

Both men were “at the apex” of the hierarchy in the tax and money laundering conspiracies, Justice Anthony Payne determined.

Jason Onley was similarly involved “at the top” of the tax scam. Source: LinkedIn
Jason Onley was similarly involved “at the top” of the tax scam. Source: LinkedIn

The court was told Cranston personally pocketed “exorbitant personal benefits” totalling more than $6.8m, which he splashed on luxury cars, properties, and even a plane.

Meanwhile Onley retained more than $4.69m, which he spent on high-end properties, cars, and a boat.

On Tuesday, Justice Payne found the offences were “committed not out of need, but out of greed”.

He asserted Cranston was “knowingly involved” in the multimillion-dollar fraud from the outset and was “intimately aware of the criminal purpose” of the scheme.

He said the 36-year-old was an “architect” of the “vast, three-year-long conspiracies” involving a “high degree of dishonesty and breach of trust”.

Cranston spent his millions on buying luxury cars, the court was told.
Cranston spent his millions on buying luxury cars, the court was told.

Onley, a former professional snowboarder, was similarly “a willing and active participant” in the scam from its inception at a Sydney strip club in 2014.

The court was told the tax fraud had a “corrosive impact on society” because it robbed the community of $105m that could have been used to build hospitals or schools.

Justice Payne said the stolen funds would have to be recouped by cuts to government services or increased taxes.

“These conspiracies demonstrate the dangerousness of individuals working in concert for a common unlawful end,” he said.

“(Tax fraud) is not a game or victimless crime. It is a form of corruption.”

The Supreme Court Justice found Cranston did not appreciate the impact of his “gross violation of societal norms” and had not made “any real attempt” to show contrition.

Onley similarly had “limited insight” and had not demonstrated any remorse for his role in directing the $105m scam.

Justice Payne found Cranston still didn’t believe he had done anything criminal, while Onley didn’t appear “to understand the gravity of his conduct”.

Cranston’s lawyer John Stratton SC previously contended his client had been “kept in the dark” by Plutus Payroll founder Simon Anquetil, whom he called “the designer of the scheme”.

ATO deputy commissioner Michael Cranston.
Adam is the son of former ATO deputy commissioner Michael Cranston, who is not accused of any wrongdoing.

Justice Payne disagreed, finding that Cranston “knew at all times that Plutus was not legitimate or profitable”.

“I reject any suggestions that Mr Anquetil was more heavily involved in the conspiracies than Mr Cranston or that he was the principal architect,” he said.

“It is clear Mr Anquetil never had any control over these (second-tier companies).”

The court was told he had been diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, depressive disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, and substance abuse disorder.

Yet Justice Payne said he was not satisfied that Cranston’s mental health conditions contributed to the offending.

COURT - PLUTUS PAYROLL SYNDICATE
Cranston has been jailed for playing a main role in the two conspiracies. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Jeremy Piper

He noted the 36-year-old and Onley had both purposefully engaged in “a persistent course of conduct that was not spontaneous or opportunistic.”

Justice Payne sentenced Cranston and Onley to 15 years behind bars with a non parole period of 10 years. The convicted fraudsters will be eligible for release on March 5, 2033.

Despite the lengthy prison term imposed on her husband, Cranston’s wife stood by him.

“Although Adam has made a grave mistake, I know he is a good person and a loving father,” she wrote in a letter to the court.

Cranston and Onley were the last of 14 conspirators to be sentenced over one of Australia’s biggest tax scams and both received the longest jail terms.

Outside the courthouse, Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Kirsty Schofield said the sentences marked the conclusion of seven years of “extremely complex” investigation and prosecution.

The AFP seized 30 terabytes of information during their investigation and compiled 10,000 pages of evidence for the court case.

The court documents reveal police have to interrogate more than 100 bank accounts linked to the conspirators during the years-long investigation.

Ms Schofield said $50m had been recovered but police would continue their efforts to reclaim the stolen funds.