By Jason Bryce
Lawyers representing the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) have defended their failure to prosecute the directors of failed payments company Bill Express. ASIC have prosecuted a former financial executive of Bill Express and a share broker who assisted the directors of Bill Express to manipulate the BXP share price in order to help the directors avoid margin calls. Another junior executive associated with Bill Express has pleaded not guilty to charges brought by ASIC and faces court later this month.
Peter Couper, the former chief financial officer of Bill Express’ parent company OnQ was sentenced to 21 months in jail, wholly suspended, in the Victorian County Court on Friday. Couper pleaded guilty to four charges relating to the falsification of the company accounts, misleading auditors and misleading ASIC investigators.
In sentencing Judge Liz Gaynor recognised that Couper was an employee acting out the directions of his employers, Bill Express chief executive Ian Christiansen and his brother Hal Christiansen, a director.
“You never held shares, you were never a director,” said Gaynor “What you did was at the behest of the Christiansens, in particular Ian Christiansen. The only real benefit to you was the continuation of your employment.”
Gaynor also noted that Couper had agreed to give evidence against another former Bill Express executive, Enzo Di Donato, who has pleaded not guilty to charges relating to the rigging of the Bill Express share price in 2007 and 2008.
Macquarie Equities share trader Newton Chan was convicted and jailed last year on charges relating to the same share trades. Chan received a discounted sentence and served four months in jail after pleading guilty and co-operating with ASIC investigators. Chan gave investigators a USB flash drive containing instructions from Ian Christiansen.
Judge Gaynor noted that the USB flash drive contained instructions to Couper relating to a false purchase and sale of a non-existent mobile phone SIM card software product known as Simex.
The court also heard that Christiansen’s instructions also spelt out what Couper, Di Donato and Chan were to tell ASIC investigators.
Defence barrister Phillip Dunn told the court that finding a bullet hole in his office window was among a number of events that intimidated Peter Couper into following the instructions of the Christiansen brothers.
“This is an unusual case in many ways,” said Dunn who told the court that Couper was not a “high flyer” with a lavish lifestyle” but a “suburban accountant from Wantirna.”
“He was paid and salaried, he had no bonus, no shares, he was a servant of the organisation.”
Crown prosecutor Mark Gibson, representing ASIC, told the court that a prosecution of Ian Christiansen was unlikely because it would have to rely on the testimony of confessed perjurers Peter Couper and Newton Chan.
ASIC banned Ian Christiansen from managing a corporation for five years in March last year. His brother Hal Christiansen died in July 2008.
Newton Chan’s former employer, Macquarie Equities, is being sued for more than $10 million by Saudi corporate giant Al Othman over the manipulation of the Bill Express share price.
Between 2005 and 2008, Bill Express had a turnover of about $1billion per year mainly from the sale of phone cards and mobile phone recharge vouchers sold through 14,000 terminals in newsagencies and other retail outlets.
Following the collapse of Bill Express in 2008, Peter Couper and Enzo Di Donato were both employed by Activ8Me, a satellite broadband provider controlled by another former Bill Express identity Sandro Di Donato.
In 2007 companies related to Bill Express purchased small Adelaide based ISP Activ8Me which obtained authority under the Australian Broadband Guarantee to connect rural customers to government subsidised satellite broadband services after Bill Express provided written guarantees for Activ8Me.
In September 2011, Activ8Me was licensed by NBN Co. to provide satellite broadband billing services.
I am grateful to freelance journalist Jason Bryce for providing such a comprehensive report for publishing here. The insights in this report go beyond reports published elsewhere.