But a Supreme Court judge has found Greg Willett cheated two of his off-field clients – one an old school friend, the other a quadriplegic – out of millions of dollars.
In a devastating judgment on Willett’s business dealings, Justice Michael Pembroke said he had been dishonest, misleading and deceptive.
Willett was yesterday ordered to pay the two men, diver John Sullivan and fisherman Clyde Thomas, a total of $3.6 million compensation plus compounding interest, which is expected to increase the amount to over $8 million.
He must also pay the entire legal bill for the five-week civil trial, estimated to be at least another $1 million.
The court heard that Willett’s assets, including real estate, were held in his wife Debra’s name. She recently sold their $4 million Burraneer waterfront mansion near Cronulla, with “hundreds of thousands of dollars” going towards their own legal bills.
Willett, 59, is considering appealing against the judgment.
Justice Pembroke said that his actions were a case of subterfuge and double dealing.
The saga began after Mr Thomas, 57, received $5 million compensation for a 1989 car crash that left him a quadriplegic. He had grown up with Mr Sullivan, 58, and Willett in Cronulla and he and Mr Sullivan had worked as deep sea divers on oil rigs around the world.
The two men were close friends and Willett, an accountant, did Mr Sullivan’s tax returns.
While Mr Sullivan trusted him and even went to his wedding, Willett privately regarded him with disdain, the judge said.
“Sul is nothing but a dumb arse diver. He’s got brain damage from diving,” Willett allegedly said in front of his former secretary, who recounted the statement in court.
In 1998 Willett set up a company Softsand Design Investments Pty Ltd (SSDI) for Mr Thomas and Mr Sullivan’s investments. It soon bought five Cronulla properties with Mr Thomas’ money.
Two years later the company invested about $2 million in sporting, surfing and skateboarding clothing company SMP, which sponsored some of Willett’s rugby league clients.
Willett predicted that it would become as big as Billabong.
But he did not tell Mr Thomas and Mr Sullivan he owned half of SSDI, using it to pay personal expenses for himself and his wife and its bank account for deposits and payments to some of his clients, while asking Mr Thomas and Mr Sullivan to pay off overdrafts.
“Mr Thomas and Mr Sullivan were neither financially astute nor well educated and have now lost their monies,” Justice Pembroke said.
“To persons like [them], Mr Willett would have exhibited all of the superficial trappings of material success.
“[He] sought to take advantage of them for his own benefit.” He rejected Willett’s argument that he had no fiduciary duty to the two men, saying: “He took advantage of them and abused their trust and confidence. His conduct was duplicitous.”
A Gallery of some of the players and friends he has cheated
Check this article out from 2005 from the Sydney Morning Herald….reaks of shady character, nothing has changed
Players in hot pursuit of their agent of misfortune
September 17, 2005
He boasted he sealed his deals with a handshake, but some of Greg Willett’s clients are demanding: show me my money. Jacquelin Magnay and Kate McClymont investigate.
One of the National Rugby League‘s leading player agents, Greg Willett, asked business associates to lie to the National Crime Authority to protect his client, an organised crime figure who was under investigation for money laundering.
On top of that, he has had complaints about him referred to the Department of Fair Trading and is being questioned by the league stars Willie Mason and Greg Bird for an explanation as to where their money has gone.
Willett claims to be the star witness for the Australian Securities and Investments Commission in an inquiry into the former Bulldogs chief Gary McIntyre. The Herald has also obtained documents showing Willett’s Cronulla accountancy firm has set up offshore bank accounts for prominent clients.
Willett, 53, has a complex web of clients, including two prominent footballers, Craig Gower and Braith Anasta, and is the accountant to many others, including the former league player Phil Blake and Cronulla’s chief executive Steve Rogers, whom he played alongside in the Cronulla first-grade team in the 1970s.
In an interview with BRW Willett said of his management style: “I don’t even sign them to an agreement. Everything is done on a handshake.” But his informal approach to business has ruptured friendships and is causing angst in the football world.
John Sullivan, a commercial diver, and Clyde Thomas, a fisherman, were childhood mates of Willett. Thomas and Willett met at Woolooware Primary School. Years later, when Thomas became a quadriplegic as a result of a car accident, he turned to Willett to manage his multi-million-dollar compensation payout.
Thomas told the Herald that as well as investing his money in a property development company set up by Willett, in 1998 Willett persuaded him to lend $100,000 at 10 per cent interest to one of Willett’s clients. By 2002 neither the money nor the interest had been repaid.
In April of that year the crime authority was investigating Willett’s client over allegations he had been laundering drug money. Willett was called in to answer questions about the financial dealings of his client and his client’s wife.
According to Sullivan, after Willett had been interviewed by the authority, he instructed his partners to say the crime figure’s wife was on the company’s payroll. “It was a lie,” Sullivan said.
Asked to lie to the crime authority about the payments, Thomas claims he said to Willett, “Listen, I don’t know who your f—ing shonky mates are … I just want my money back.”
Thomas was not questioned by the authority. He is pursuing the crime figure over the missing funds. Thomas also claims to have lost the bulk of his payout in Willett’s investments, as has a Sydney media identity who says he lost $1.1 million in business dealings with Willett.
Willett said that until he was questioned by the crime authority, he was unaware his client “sold drugs”. Willett denied he told his former partners to lie and said he paid the crime figure’s wife $5000 a month to drive footballers around.
He says Sullivan is a disgruntled former friend who has waged a five-year battle against him. “He has made my life a living hell.”
Willett has also been caught up in a current securities and investments commission inquiry into a $200,000 payment his client Anasta received from a company connected to the ill-fated Oasis development. In 2002 the Bulldogs were stripped of their competition points after the Herald revealed they had breached a salary cap.
Willett has told securities and investments commission investigators that the money to Anasta was to play football and not to promote Oasis. However, Willett has previously stated that because other companies such as Kellogg’s and Nike were vying for Anasta’s services, “I told Canterbury: ‘If these other companies are paying for his services, you can pay him $200,000 for promotional work’.”
The Herald has obtained a letter sent from Willett to McIntyre in January 2002 that reads: “Re The Braith Anasta Contract.” The letter then sets out Anasta’s four-year contract, which starts off at $250,000 in 2002 and by 2005 was to have reached $350,000.
Crucially, the letter goes on to say, “An additional $200,000 is required up front on signing. This is to be made out to Softsand Design P/L [one of Willett’s companies] for $200,000 plus GST. This amount is reduce the four-year contract by $50,000.” There is no mention of Oasis promotions. Willett said yesterday that McIntyre initially rejected a request for an upfront $200,000 payment to buy Anasta a property because of fringe benefits tax liabilities the club would face, but McIntyre then agreed to the upfront deal.
“I don’t ask where the money is from,” Willett said yesterday.
The Herald has also obtained documents that show Willett’s firm has set up offshore bank accounts with credit card access so that clients could withdraw funds back in Australia. Two well-known Cronulla businessmen had accounts set up for them with the Standard Chartered Bank in Malaysia. “Here are the card numbers and signatures giving permission to activate the abovenamed accounts,” reads the letter from Willett’s office.
Willett told the Herald he had flown two lots of clients to Kuala Lumpur because “it was going to be a tax haven, and everyone put in five grand each”. But Willett said while the accounts were opened, no one ever used them.
The tax office said recently that it was investigating the use of offshore credit and debit cards as a vehicle for tax avoidance.
The Bulldogs player Willie Mason is concerned about the whereabouts of his funds from his 2004 tax return. Willett originally used $17,000 of Mason’s money, with other league players’ monies, as a deposit on a $5.25 million industrial site at Taren Point, which was later terminated.
This development was one of the projects of a local developer, James Bezzina. Willett is not only a great friend of Bezzina, but is the accountant of four of Bezzina’s troubled companies.
Bezzina (not to be confused with his cousin Michael Bezzina, also a property developer) is in financial strife, and 10 days ago liquidators were appointed to the JLB Group. Much to the consternation of several rugby league players, Willett had been tipping them into Bezzina projects.
Willett has reassured Mason the tax return has gone from the Bezzina project into another client’s project and his money would be available on September 30.
Macquarie Bank is pursuing Bezzina’s JLB Group and him personally for millions of dollars over the failed $60 million Mill project in Marrickville. Bezzina’s JLB also owes Cronulla Sharks $250,000, Penrith Panthers $220,000 and Manly Sea Eagles $25,000.
Bezzina also developed a large Dee Why apartment block, almost complete. Because of Bezzina’s current difficulties and the slump in real estate values, the league players Sonny Bill Williams, Chris Walker and Greg Bird pulled out of this development last month.
Bird and his manager have been chasing Willett to return Bird’s $24,000 deposit. “I thought I had given it to Reg Gibson [Willett’s solicitor] but it was sitting there in trust, rolling over until he needed it,” Willett said yesterday. Bird’s money would be available next week, he said.
The NSW Department of Fair Trading previously investigated Willett over receiving commissions and accepting deposit monies from footballers in relation to another Bezzina JLB development at Cronulla. Only licensed real estate agents are able to do this.
Willett’s football clients Anasta, Phil Blake, Luke Branighan and the rugby union player Manuel Edmonds bought into the development, which overlooks Woolooware golf course, in 2001.
A party connected to the property deal complained to the department about Willett’s receiving the deposits. Willett said he had told his clients he had billed Bezzina $10,000 for accountancy work and his clients were happy with that. “I don’t take secret commissions,” Willett said.
The complainant has been told there can be no further investigation because none of the footballers wanted to complain.
Meanwhile, the Panthers’ Craig Gower has had a rocky relationship with Willett since the Herald revealed to him he was a director of Bezzina’s company JLB Developments – now in liquidation.
Willett told Gower it was a mistake made by Bezzina. Securities and investments commission documents show Gower’s name was removed from JLB Developments. And while Bezzina was removed as a director of Gower’s company last month, the troubled property developer remains a shareholder in it.