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Corporate investigation collapse: ASIC gives up on Offset Alpine mystery

Graham Richardson

TheAustralian.com.au

THE corporate regulator has given up the fight to uncover the mystery of who owned a secret parcel of Offset Alpine shares that soared in value after a fire at the company's printing plant in 1993 - one of the biggest corporate scandals in recent history.

The Australian Securities & Investments Commission has decided to end overseas court cases and its wider investigation into deceased stockbroker Rene Rivkin, businessman Trevor Kennedy and former Labor politician Graham Richardson.

After the death of Rivkin in 2005, Mr Kennedy, a former Qantas director, and Mr Richardson, an ALP powerbroker, became the focus of the legal pursuit.

In recent years, ASIC had tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain documents which may have linked offshore companies to Mr Kennedy.

ASIC's decision to end its legal actions leaves Mr Richardson and Mr Kennedy in the clear. Both have always denied ownership of the parcel of shares.

ASIC will not recommend any criminal charges be laid and no fines will be imposed.

The backdown comes after ASIC spent millions of dollars on a global hunt in countries such as England, Switzerland, the Bahamas and the Isle of Man in a bid to determine whether it could gather enough evidence to lay charges of perjury or other civil charges relating to the shareholding. But in a recent court judgment obtained by The Weekend Australian, ASIC was criticised in one legal action for changing its position, which was described as "at best, highly confused, inconsistent and deeply unsatisfactory on the papers".

Last November, ASIC was knocked back by Swiss authorities when it sought help on obtaining a large number of documents, but the corporate regulator continued its fight in courts in England and the Isle of Man.

ASIC begain its investigation in 2003, following revelations in The Australian Financial Review that Rivkin had told Swiss authorities that he, Mr Kennedy and Mr Richardson were the owners of a secret 38 per cent shareholding in Offset Alpine Printing Group worth $27 million.

The 1993 fire in Sydney had triggered a massive $54m insurance payout on equipment worth $3m, resulting in a windfall for shareholders. Two Swiss banks had until then been named as the holders of the shares, with the ultimate owners unknown.

The public fallout was swift, with Mr Kennedy, a board member of Qantas, forced to resign from the board of seven companies. Both he and Mr Richardson denied owning the shares, but the Australian Taxation Office hit them both with multi-million-dollar tax bills, and both ultimately settled for undisclosed sums. The tax office also issued a $29m tax bill against Rivkin's estate, forcing it into bankruptcy.

Rivkin died in 2005 but ASIC's investigation continued, focusing on a criminal investigation into possible perjury charges against Mr Kennedy, according to documents filed in the Isle of Man.

ASIC has been involved in numerous court stoushes around the world, most recently in England and the Isle of Man, where it has been trying to gain access to documents linked to offshore companies that could have provided the crucial missing link for its investigation.

ASIC did not respond to calls, and neither Mr Kennedy nor Mr Richardson would comment.