Home World Business Joseph Gutnick’s business dealings worked over in the Federal Court

Joseph Gutnick’s business dealings worked over in the Federal Court

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And so for Joseph Gutnick it came to this.

His business life in paperwork stacked in sad, neat Pitcher Partner binders emblazoned with the words: “Bankrupt Estate of Joseph Gutnick”.

There are many of these books in the Federal Court hearing room, all brimming with documents.  

They reveal the business affairs of one of Australia’s most successful speculative investors and appear at times ad hoc and almost always byzantine.

There are handwritten notes in English and Hebrew underpinning a $25 million loan from Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, paperwork for debts he incurred from doing business with a New York fraudster with no amount or date recorded and trustee documents that are also undated.

The wheelings and dealings between the families companies are sometimes even too hard to Gutnick to explain.

Welcome to Gutnick’s bankruptcy proceedings where this past week lawyers for his trustees in bankruptcy and major creditors to his bankrupt estate have lined up to grill the former Melbourne Football Club president.

“Over the years I’ve just followed the advice of my accountants and my lawyers about how my affairs have been put into place,” he said.

'Diamond Joe' Gutnick in front of a painting of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe. ‘Diamond Joe’ Gutnick in front of a painting of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe. Photo: Jesse Marlow

“I have 40 companies; all types of transactions going it. It’s extremely difficult for my wife and for myself to say what was happening with all of those companies.”

Long fall

It has been a long fall for the man who once graced the BRW Rich List as one of Australia’s richest men. Only two years ago his wealth was estimated at $200 million.

Joe Gutnick celebrates a win by Melbourne Football Club in 2001. Joe Gutnick celebrates a win by Melbourne Football Club in 2001. Photo: Pat Scala

He earned the moniker Diamond Joe through investments in diamond and gold mines in the 1990s and did deals, and sometimes fell out with, other big business identities including corporate buccaneer Larry Adler (father of Rodney) and Andrew Forrest in his Anaconda Nickel days.

His debts stand at a staggering $275 million, of which more than $150 million is allegedly owed to related parties, including his wife, family trusts and family companies. He claims his only assets are $16,087 in cash and a portfolio of worthless shares.

I’m not going to put my wife into problems.

Joe Gutnick

Gutnick found himself in this position after a $103 million deal between his company Legend International and the Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative (IFFCO) soured.

IFFCO and its subsidiary Kisan International sued Gutnick and Legend  in the Supreme Court of Victoria in 2015 to enforce a $US40.4 million ($54 million) debt and won.

Stera and Mordecai Gutnick at the Federal Court. Stera and Mordecai Gutnick at the Federal Court. Photo: Jason South

When IFFCO and its partner moved to bankrupt Gutnick he got in first, declaring himself broke and appointing Gess Rambaldi of Pitcher Partners with debts of $275 million.

Gutnick still disputes the IFFCO debt.

Joseph Gutnick outside the Federal Court in Melbourne. Joseph Gutnick outside the Federal Court in Melbourne.  Photo: Jason South

He told court this week: “I don’t believe I was in any financial stress until IFFCO came along with their false claims.”

Angry scenes

It was not the only time during a Thursday’s hearing Gutnick bristled during questioning from IFFCO’s lawyer Philip Crutchfield QC.

At times leaning over the witness and pointing, Gutnick’s ire was raised when the validity of some of the debts he had listed on his statement of affairs were challenged by Crutchfield.

It’s a line of questioning that will become increasingly important as trustees pick over his estate. Any composition – an agreement to release Mr Gutnick from bankruptcy – will be voted on by creditors.

But that’s not why Gutnick said he was angry.

“It’s not a Machne Israel falsified document. He’s trying to infer this is not a legitimate document,” Mr Gutnick said, referring to the $13 million debt from the community organisation Machne Israel on his statement of affairs.

“You’re touching on extremely dangerous ground by asking and [questioning] the honourability and the creditability of the Rebbe.

“You are questioning the authenticity of all the secretaries of the Chabad.”

Other deals were also questioned.

Making money

Trusts established in the late 1980s after the stock market crash and in the late 1990s to more recent structures set up in the 2000s were challenged by IFFCO’s lawyers as a technique to protect Gutnick and his family’s assets as he rode the waves of the market.

Gutnick told the court: “I made lots of money and lost lots of money in my career.”

There was much querying of dates.

“This declaration of trust was prepared in case those matters went bad for you and you just put the date? Put the date in so those assets were beyond the reach of your creditors?” Crutchfield asked, to which Gutnick replied: “I don’t agree”.

His $33.5 million debt to his wife Stera was also questioned. Mrs Gutnick, who was made a director or became a sole director of several of Mr Gutnick’s companies just ahead of his bankruptcy, also faced questioning.

Earlier in the week she had told the court that the first time she heard about her husband’s debt to her was in 2016.

Again Gutnick’s hairs were raised.

“I’m not going to put my wife into problems. I’m not prepared to contradict what she says,” Gutnick told the court.

At times he refused to answer any more questions about his wife, calling press reports about her $285,000 salary “disgusting” and calling her his “diamond”.

A lot is outsourced in the Gutnick household and Gutnick directs the answers to many questions to his accountants and lawyers.

However, earlier in the examinations, his accountant Peter Stegelman told the court, according to Crutchfield, that he had only followed instructions and Gutnick was aware of the dealings.

Memory test

At times Gutnick’s memory of complex deals 30 years ago, 20 years ago and even 10 years ago is hazy – as is common for most people.

But Gutnick is far from a doddering old man with his hands off the wheel. He exudes intelligence.

At one point during his public examination, when the lawyers are struggling with displaying key documents on computer screens and nearly all in court have lost their way through the reams of paperwork, Gutnick interrupts – “it’s (document) 208”.

And another time, as lawyers took him, line by line, through a 2008 loan account that recorded various transfers of funds recorded in toto as $42 million in loans from the family’s Hoydu Family Trust No 1 to Gutnick, he remember details of even some of the smallest transactions.

Whether Gutnick’s transactions and debts are bona fide or not will be a decision for his bankruptcy trustees and the courts to decide.

The man has risen and fallen so many times.

A betting person (including those who invest in speculative mining stocks) couldn’t rule out another comeback. 

The examinations continue. 

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