COMMENT

Secrecy surrounding his assets: Trevor Kennedy. Photo: Rob Homer

Former Kerry Packer confidante Trevor Kennedy is trying to sell his $26 million “Kennedy Collection” of Australian art, furniture, silver, jewellery, pottery and porcelain but has hit a snag.

He first tried to sell it to the National Museum of Australia. It responded with a low-ball offer, but it doesn’t want the valuable Australiana going offshore either.

The subject of his wealth has been a matter of speculation and scrutiny in Sydney’s business community for two decades.

Kennedy fought a lengthy battle against corporate regulator the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and the Australian Taxation Office to maintain the secrecy of his assets held overseas in tax havens.

It was 20 years ago to this month that the Offset Alpine printing plant in Silverwater was destroyed by a fire. The disaster however delivered a blessing for shareholders in Offset Alpine. The factory was insured by Rodney Adler’s FAI Insurances and the destruction of its $3 million printing plant set Offset Alpine up for a $53 million insurance windfall.

Shareholders in Offset Alpine, who included Rodney Adler, Rene Rivkin, Ray Martin, Sean Howard, Bill Hayden and Eddie Obeid, soon become big winners as the company’s share price shot up in the wake of the fire and the insurance payout.

Offset Alpine had been floated on the sharemarket only the year before, in 1992, after Rene Rivkin had acquired the printing plant from Australia’s richest man, Kerry Packer, for $15.3 million. The fire had tripled the value of the printing plant.

A subsequent investigation for insurance fraud came to nought, although suspicions of arson persist to this day. And ASIC’s efforts to establish the identity of mystery owners of a 38 per cent parcel of shares in Offset Alpine were to be frustrated for years to come.

The ASIC investigation found the mystery $26 million parcel of shares was held in secret Swiss bank accounts. Although Rene Rivkin and Kennedy were called in for questioning in 1995, they denied knowledge of the ownership. Kennedy denied on oath that he had any interest in the offending parcel.

It was not until 2003 – 10 years after the fire – that ASIC established the mystery shareholders were Rene Rivkin, Labor powerbroker Graeme Richardson and Kennedy.

Rivkin took his own life in 2005, as investigations into Offset Alpine were still afoot, and after being jailed for insider trading in another company.

According to Federal Court judge Roger Gyles in a subsequent court case, Kennedy had taken “all available steps to preserve or enhance the secrecy from Australian authorities, including ASIC, of his dealings in or relating to Switzerland, including … any dealings with Rivkin generally and … the Offset Alpine shares in particular”.

A report in the Australian Financial Review noted that Kennedy took his secrecy so seriously that he had told a Swiss associate, Benno Hafner, in 2002: “I deliberately keep no records of my affairs in Switzerland. I visit the country only on an annual basis … I am very circumspect about using the telephone between Switzerland and Australia.”

In May 2010, the regulators gave up the fight. Kennedy’s offshore structures were disguised by an impenetrable labyrinth of entities which stretched from the British Virgin Islands to the Bahamas, and through a chain of corporate trusts in Liechtenstein and Scottish partnerships in London.

As a former chief executive of Kerry Packer’s Consolidated Press Holdings, Kennedy had led a takeover bid for the publisher of this media house, Fairfax Media, during the early 1990s.

By the late 1990s he had become a professional company director and dabbled heavily in dotcom shares during the boom in 2000. The wealth he amassed during his stint as a Packer executive would have been augmented significantly by the Offset Alpine involvement and later by his trading and corporate manoeuvring during the dotcom boom.

It is no small irony though that the legendary Swiss Gnomes holding in Offset Alpine, at $26 million, matches the price at which the colourful businessman tried to sell his Kennedy Collection to the National Museum.

Kennedy joined businessman John Singleton and investment banker Mark Carnegie as they amassed a small stake in Fairfax Media earlier this year and supported Gina Rinehart in agitating for change.