The other day I was handed an advance copy of a book to go on sale today. In it was one of those wonderful little Kevin-Baconesque degrees of rugby separation that make reading worthwhile.
On July 25, 1981, a group of anti-apartheid protestors were baton charged and mercilessly beaten in Wellington’s Molesworth St as they protested the Springbok tour of New Zealand. Several suffered serious head injuries as they were bashed by the NZ police “Red Squad”.
Few would have realised then that the man in charge of the Red Squad, was linked in a small way to the evolution of one of Australia’s greatest corporate scams, a scam which would almost cripple Australia’s newest rugby franchise as well as several other sporting organisations.
The story is that the Red Squad was a specially convened anti-riot unit headed up by Ross Meurant (who wrote a book about the experience) and later stood as the National Party candidate for Hobson (NZ) in the 1987 elections where he was successful. Later still upon leaving the Nationals, Meurant established a new party known as Right of Centre, based around his deeply conservative views.
After leaving Parliament, Meurant stood several times for various local political offices, including the Rodney seat on the Auckland Regional Council.
His bid at the Rodney seat was successful but his time with the Rodney District Council was short lived, when the entire council was effectively dissolved by the NZ Government on 10 April 2000 due to “relationship problems” between elected members. Many former members of the council attributed these issues to Mr Meurant’s attitude.
After the embarrassing District Council fiasco that made national headlines in New Zealand, his bid at the Rodney mayoralty failed amid huge local disapproval. He has since moved to Eastern Europe and now allegedly feels he was manipulated by the “police subculture”.
Along the way to this unusual Iron-Curtain-shaded retirement, Meurant also found time to fill a directors seat at Prok Bank, a shady “bank” which was investigated three times by the New Zealand government around banking rules and money laundering allegations. Among other things, Meurant helped Prok broker a commercial fishing deal, despite his parliamentary position as undersecretary of agriculture and forestry. When asked to relinquish the directorship, he refused and was summarily sacked from parliament.
Around this time, Prok also had links with the company that would eventually become Firepower, the failed fuel additive giant which collapsed in 2008. Prok funded a series of dubious trials in Russia, the Ukraine and Vietnam aimed at proving the viability of Firepower fuel pills and products.
Although the tests didn’t prove anything, they provided an opportunity for Tim Johnston, the Firepower supremo, to pay for positive endorsements which he later used to market his products and thus engineer the greatest corporate scam Australia had ever seen.
Meurant is just one of the hundreds of dodgy, weird, wired and wonderful characters who makes an appearance in the epic fiasco that is the Tim Johnston/Firepower story. Others to make an appearance include former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Pakistani president
General Pervez Musharraf, Australian Governor General Michael Jeffrey and British PM Tony Blair. That’s not to say, of course, that any of the above people were involved in the Firepower scam as active participants. It is simply an illustration of the level at which the Tim Johnston’s deceit was operating.
Not only was it happening at an altitude beyond imagination, the sheer scope of the Firepower scandal was breathtaking. To give you an idea, the episodes involving Meurant above cover barely 2 pages of my advance tome of Gerard Ryle’s new book “Firepower – The Most Spectacular Fraud In Australian History”, so you can imagine just how much scandal, intrigue and skulduggery is contained in the whole 250-odd pages.
In any case, by mid-2005, Firepower had hit the stratosphere – at least in terms of hype and income, if not actual worth, and it was amid this mad scramble for wealth in the boom towns of WA, that Tim Johnston reconnected with his old school and rugby mate from Queensland, Peter O’Meara.
To quote author Gerard Ryle, “O’Meara had recently arrived in Perth as chief executive of the new Super 14 rugby franchise called the Western Force. Only months earlier, Perth had surprised many people by beating Melbourne for the right to host a team in the world’s best rugby competition.”
“Heading up the new western Force Super 14 franchise was O’Meara’s first job as a full-time sports administrator, but he saw the job as a stepping stone towards his real target. He wanted to be chief executive of the game’s elite administrative body, the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) a coveted position he had applied for and failed to secure two years earlier.”
“But first, O’Meara needed to build a successful team. And that wasn’t easy. The rules of the competition capped the wages of the players he wanted to hire. Without being able to offer extra payments, he had little to persuade a good player to relocate to the other side of the continent, to a city that many felt didn’t appreciate the finer points of the game. So O’Meara decided to break the rules. Together with the chairman of the new club Geoff Stooke, and with the passive endorsement of the rugby WA board, the Western Force made secret arrangements with the commercial representatives of six Wallaby players: Brendan Cannon, Matt Henjak, Scott Fava, Cameron Shepherd, Lachlan Mackay and Nathan Sharpe who would be the new club’s captain.”
“Western Force promised to secure the players paid employment with one of the clubs sponsors in addition to their regular income. The club then went further and guaranteed to pay the players the agreed amounts if the employment fell through, which was what occurred in each case except that of Cannon. Some of these payments were worth up to $400,000 a year to the players, although there is no suggestion that the players themselves knew the protocols were being broken”
“The transactions would later create headaches for the new club, including the need to hide payments from the ARU or risk sanctions. But the immediate benefit was that six top line players had been hired. More significantly, the club had shown that it was willing to splash around money, a fact appreciated by the powerful player agents that lurk behind the professional game.”
“Johnston walked into this world in May 2005 when O’Meara introduced him to club officials around Perth’s business community as a self made millionaire. He was, it was said, a man with money to burn”.
“Firepower was signed up as inaugural sponsor of the new club, with Johnston promising at least $300,000 a year for three years to have his company’s dragon logo stitched onto the sleeve of the Western Force shirt. Though no formal contract was ever signed – Johnston complained he was too busy – he left nobody in doubt about his ability to pay. In early July, he stunned an audience at a gala function held in honour of the team’s new sponsors by paying $30,000 for one of the clubs new shirts”.
“In this way, Johnston took his first tentative steps into the world of Australian sport”.
Even in this short extract, the potential catastrophes for Australian rugby were rife. What if O’Meara had become head of the ARU? What if the Wallabies had become the Firepower Wallabies? Why didn’t anyone in a professional sporting organisation insist that a major sponsor sign a contract? Why didn’t anyone ask around about Johnston’s background? Why was there no due diligence on a company which was effectively about to become a Force debtor to the tune of $300,000 annually?
Gerard Ryle’s “Firepower – The Most Spectacular Fraud In Australian History” gives several telling reasons for rugby fans in Australia to be concerned about the magnitude of the bullet that rugby has dodged, and to breathe a sigh of relief that the damage was not greater, although the parlous financial state of the Western Force may yet prove to be too much for it to endure.
Incidentally, there is an argument here for the ARU to have a fairly significant say in the financial affairs of the provinces, given that they will almost certainly become the lender of last resort should the Force need financial support to survive. If this was to happen, it would further erode the slim reserves from the 2003 World Cup – funds which the ARU can ill afford to squander, and which in any case, belong in spirit to the rugby public. They should not become a bail-out fund for provinces engaged in prohibited activities.
The Firepower story is a stunning tale of matter-of-course lies, casual deception and astonishing bravado, mixed with continual examples of massive acquisitive greed and slapdash investigation. I read the whole thing with my mouth slightly open – truly gobsmacked that one man could accomplish such an utter rout of all that was honest and decent.
If you follow rugby and you’re engaged in any sort of business, you need to read this book.
“Firepower – The Most Spectacular Fraud In Australian History” by Gerard Ryle, goes on sale today at all good bookstores.