Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Bradley Ponzi scheme: The not-so-winning woman

Graham Simons, victim of the Bradley Ponzi scheme Photo / Sarah Ivey
Graham Simons, victim of the Bradley Ponzi scheme Photo / Sarah Ivey

The past and present of Jacqui Bradley could be found within a short walk. For the delusions inherent in the gulf between the two, we need the help of a psychologist.

An attendant at Auckland's public library in Lorne St retrieves from the basement a copy of The Winning Women. Published in 1988, it is a guide to financial liberation and security that Bradley wrote under her maiden name of O'Neill.

"Women too often leave hubby to deal with finances and are left ignorant and vulnerable to sudden changes of fortune," the book says. "In effect women often perceive themselves as victims of circumstance and do not realise their full potential for taking control of their finances."

Five hundred metres away in Albert St, the author sat in the dock of court 13 of the Auckland District Court. Last week she was convicted on 75 fraud charges relating to a Ponzi scheme that stripped 28 victims, many of them personal friends, of $15.5 million.

She appears wearied, older, harder but is still recognisable as the fresh-faced young author of 24 years earlier. Now 59, a large clip holds her brown hair high on the back of her head. Reading glasses perch on her crown. She stares at a closed folder in front of her while to her left, documents periodically appear on a computer screen. A reinforced glass partition separates her from the public gallery where some victims sit.

When they were charged, in December 2010, Bradley stood shoulder to shoulder in the dock with her husband and business partner Mike Bradley. He died last year of a heart attack. Her defence boiled down to: I didn't know what Mike was up to. In essence, she claimed to be the trusting naive woman her self-help book sought to liberate.

Never mind that she wrote to clients as the scheme crumbled and the Bradleys bank account emptied, soliciting fresh funds for claimed prime opportunities. Never mind that a savvy finance person such as Bradley supposedly never thought to reassure herself during the world financial crisis that the investments they made (or as it turned out, hadn't made) on behalf of clients were secure. Their company - of which they were co-directors and equal shareholders - was called B'On Financial Services Ltd. "Be on" is a racecourse reference that suggests a good thing. Clients were told their money was in dependable ventures such as a fund with Australia-based Macquarie Bank and New Zealand government stocks. "Capital guaranteed" was an empty phrase they regularly used.

There was no Macquarie fund. The Bradleys were never registered to deal in Government stocks. In fact, neither was ever registered as financial adviser, despite some people regarding them as pioneers of the financial advice industry. That was due to the book and associated seminars. They managed to parlay that into a lifestyle that appears never to have been supported by success in business. They were out of their depth.

Jacqui had been a school teacher, Mike's background was insurance. Neither had expertise as investors.

The Crown said none "none of the [$15.5 million] was invested at all". Kristy McDonald, QC, summed the case up in a handful of phrases: "it was all a lie", "many investors thought she was their friend", "it was a slow erosion of trust", "a money merry-go-round where they robbed Peter to pay Paul" and to maintain their comfortable lifestyle.

The Winning Woman: "Financial success does not mean becoming a multi-millionaire, but simply that you are knowledgeable, in control, aware that you do have a choice, and are capable of making informed choices and taking responsibility for the consequences."

Liquidators found no proper accounts. The Serious Fraud Office examined 30,000 documents but found nothing to verify what the Bradleys' told their victims they had done with their money. There was no "pot of gold" sitting overseas.

Money passed through the Bradley's bank accounts and their family trust. Little if any money is understood to have been found in either.

They are said to have spent clients' money on regular overseas travel for their family, rent for offices in the prestigious Vero Centre, a leased bach in Pauanui, private school fees, credit cards, payments on a BMW, the mortgage on their $4.8 million Remuera home - and to pay earlier investors.

In typical Ponzi fashion, the money put in last was all lost. One couple lost $3.3 million, with all but $100,000 of it handed to the Bradleys in the six months before the liquidators shut down their companies. Jacqui Bradley solicited that money with offers of wonderful but fictitious opportunities.

James Saunders, who was terminally ill, handed over a $150,000 life insurance payment weeks before the balloon went up. He died before the trial but had recorded his evidence on video.

And piano teacher Graham Simons, who got to know them when he tutored their young daughter in the 1990s, handed over a third of the $750,000 he entrusted to them in the period that turned out to be the scam's denouement. Simons sat through each court day boiling at the betrayal. "I feel as though I was groomed as an easy touch," he told the Weekend Herald.

Simons and the Bradleys had Christmas dinners together, celebrated birthdays, and Jacqui helped plan his mother's funeral. "We were good friends."

The Bradleys maintained the pretence that all was in order even after charges were laid. The last communication Simons got from them was a text from Mike: "Plans for repayment remain firmly in place and charges being brought tomorrow don't affect this." Such was the bond they had established, Simons continued to trust in them until after he was interviewed by fraud investigators. "I still thought the money was there. I couldn't see how a good friend could do what they had done."

He had raised his three children alone on a teacher's salary after his wife died aged 36. He'd never had money until he came into property after an elderly neighbour he had cared for died. In 2003 he sold up, bought his current home and ended up putting all the balance in the hands of the Bradleys. Including interest, he estimates he's lost $800,000.

Now 69, Simons lives on superannuation and a small teacher's pension.

Of Jacqui's's defence he says, "It's a lot of rubbish. Of course she knew what she was doing. She's written the book, she was dealing with most of the clients. Mike must be rolling in his grave; the dead can't answer."

Jacqui did the talking at a meeting to reassure clients after news broke in 2010 that the SFO was investigating. "She was always so focused. She wore the trousers."

It was Jacqui who had the excuses when Simons wanted his money out having decided he'd feel safer with it in real estate. She asked him to wait as they were arranging to sell the business to a trading bank.

Excuses, excuses: a London barrister was sorting everything out; the Bradleys were being persecuted, like Alan Hubbard; delays in interest payment were blamed on the likes of Japanese bank holidays.

"These bankers are something else," Jacqui emailed one victim.

The SFO warns of a rise in "affinity crimes", where in the wake of the collapse of finance companies run by strangers there is a trend for people to feel their trust is better placed in people they know.

A great irony of fraud is it can only operate in an environment of trust, says Victoria University associate professor of psychology Marc Wilson. "This is a particular example where the fraud operates with people who are most likely to trust you and therefore the ones most likely to feel betrayed."

Both perpetrators and victims can display wilful delusion. "We find ourselves questioning our own competence and we don't like to do that because it is very uncomfortable.

"People start to engage in something called cognitive dissonance [at the expense of the harsh reality]. Rather than admit you have [stuffed] up badly, it is better to continue to delude yourself that it will be okay until you can no longer do that."

Wilson says elements of narcissism may be involved because Jacqui Bradley, through her book and seminars, was holding herself out as an expert.

"That makes it more of a threat to your narcissistic self-esteem than the average person because it is not just about feeling good about yourself but attacks the core of how you see yourself, which is as a success."

The SFO doesn't know the extent of the Bradleys scam and so can't say when it crossed the line from legitimate to a rort or even whether it was ever successful at all.

The charges Jacqui Bradley was convicted of relate to a seven-year period from 2003. The date range reflects the availability of banking records (banks are required to hold data for seven years) and prudent use of investigative resources, says Nick Paterson, the SFO's general manager, fraud and corruption.

Some cases could take years to fully examine so, as a matter of efficiency, the SFO tries to get the best evidential value from the shortest period.

The Bradleys did, however, invest some clients' money with legitimate fund managers. But it is understood that by the time investigators became involved (in early 2010) all money had been withdrawn from these legitimate funds.

And, it seems, not always voluntarily. NZ Funds Management told the Bradleys to remove their clients' money after only a few years because the Bradleys didn't seem to understand the nature of long-term growth funds.

They behaved like traders which, NZ Funds principal Glenn Wright told the Herald, seemed "odd" because the funds are set up on five to 10-year growth plans. They would put money in and then take it out after a short time.

They seemed to have "an important view of themselves as investors" says Wright, rather than simply being financial advisers. Mike Bradley presented himself as the investment guru. That had seemed "a little odd too", given his background was in insurance.

NZ Funds wrote to the Bradleys in late 2003 telling them to withdraw their clients' money.

The Winning Woman: "When you invest in a managed fund you are investing in the people who manage the fund. [They] will largely determine how it performs and you are dependant on them making the right decision at the right time."

Jacqui Bradley met Mike when they both worked at insurance company T&G Mutual. The firm later merged with National Mutual and is these days known as Axa.

It may be that they were never the success that they purported to be, that their business and lifestyle always relied on the Ponzi principle of attracting new money to pay existing clients. That delicate equation was rattled by the world financial crisis that began in 2008, as it prompted some victims to press for repayment. When Robert Baldey raised concern he was told his money was in a fund that "thrived on volatility" and had averaged a return of more than 17 per cent per annum over the past seven years.

The Winning Women: "The most attractive funds are not necessarily those with the highest returns. Can the high-fliers maintain performance? How much risk is involved?"
Former colleagues have told the Herald they were concerned by the risks the Bradleys were prepared to take. They were fans of Rod Petricevic's Euro-National finance company, which collapsed in the 1987 sharemarket crash. Petricevic went on to another disaster with Bridgecorp and is now serving six-years and nine months' jail for fraud.

One person recalled Mike Bradley saying it was sensible to invest 20 per cent of your money in something that promised to return 50 or 100 per cent a year.

One of their biggest disasters was getting involved in Microworld, an attraction based on the idea that people would pay to see beasts, bugs and other objects hugely magnified and shown on television screens. At that stage their firm was known as Gardner Bradley O'Neill. Peter Gardner, a former National Mutual agent, told the Herald that he fell out with the Bradleys over Microworld and that the Bradleys' involvement in it cost him "a significant sum", including losing his home on Paritai Drive.

Gardner had no involvement in Microworld and had warned Mike Bradley off it. "But the greed got him and he dipped into clients' funds." That forced Gardner Bradley O'Neill to borrow heavily to ensure funds were available as clients wanted their money out. Gardner said he didn't know Bradley had used clients' money. "I was caught by the very fact that I was a director."

To Mike Bradley, Microworld was going to be "the elixir, it was going to be the pot of gold" that he was always looking for. "He was inexperienced about the right way of going about wealth-creation," says Gardner. "I don't think he was an expert. He was highly motivated, I think, by greed."

He recalled attending a conference with Mike Bradley in the United States in the 1980s. "He was awestruck by everything about it. It was out of his league. He wanted to grab the main chance wherever it presented itself, with little regard for the consequences, I felt."

It appears the Bradleys continued to search for the elusive pot of gold. They were directors of several companies other than B'On Financial Services - none of which appear to have succeeded. One was Frontier Water NZ Ltd, a water-bottling venture.

Simons, the piano teacher, recalls Mike Bradley nonsensically suggesting it had failed because Australia wouldn't import it because the water was "too pure".

By the time the edifice collapsed, the Bradleys hadn't even fulfilled the most basic advice of The Winning Women - to pay your house off.

The sale of their Bassett Rd home raised more than $4 million - all of it was owed to the bank.

- NZ Herald

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