Switched on Gardener owner could lose companies

By Edward Gay

Photo / File photo
Photo / File photo

The owner of Switched on Gardener could now lose his companies that once had a turnover of $10 million a year.

Michael Quinlan - together with the company's general manager Peter Bennett - were convicted of possessing and supplying equipment to grow cannabis, and face up to seven years in jail.

The pair were acquitted of belonging to an organised criminal group.

Hydroponic Wholesalers and Stoneware 91 - the supply and retail arms of the company - were also convicted of drugs charges.

Now the Crown are seeking an "instrument forfeiture'' of the shares in the two companies. The Crown says the companies were an integral part of Quinlan and Bennett's offending.

Under the Sentencing Amendment Act, passed last September, a property can be forfeited if considered an "instrument of crime'', although a judge can decline the application if the seizure would cause undue hardship to offenders or their families.

The new law also means a judge must take into account the financial loss from a frozen property, and consider a lighter sentence or even a discharge.

If the Crown's application is successful, the assets will be transferred to the Official Assignee. It is not known what would happen to them.

The Switched On Gardener business was born in the early 1990s when Quinlan and his brother opened the first store in the west Auckland suburb of Henderson.

From those modest beginnings sprang a business that eventually expanded nationwide with 16 stores and an annual turnover estimated to be $10m. Bennett told the trial that up to 14,000 customers a month passed through its doors.

Quinlan and his lawyer Paul Davidson QC were at court today (Fri).

Quinlan told APNZ that he would be opposing the application.

He said the case will be complicated because a trust owns the shares of one of the companies.

Mr Quinlan said the case was all set to go ahead today but the lawyer for the trust and a key witness were ill.

Asked if he wanted to comment on the case, Quinlan answered: "I'm not supposed to talk to the media''.

Quinlan has also had his $1m home in Gulf Harbour frozen, along with nearly $190,000 in cash. The order means Quinlan cannot sell the property or borrow money against it.

Those assets are the subject of a separate Crown application in the High Court at Auckland.

During the police investigation, undercover officers saw some staff members smoking cannabis, and others were willing to sell seedlings and the finished product.

More than 25 staff, including an area manager and the operations manager, have been convicted of drugs charges but the Crown said the drug offending went right to the top.

In his closing address, Crown lawyer Ross Burns said the organisation was designed to make money from selling equipment for cannabis, and the employees were encouraged and assisted to commit offences.

Despite staff talking about tomatoes and pumpkins, the company's motif was a stylised cannabis leaf, it sold pro-cannabis literature, bongs, and equipment that enabled customers to grow the drug at home.

Fan filtering systems also allowed growers to hide their illegal operations from their neighbours and passers-by, Mr Burns said.

"All of [the items] can be used for other things. But there is only one thing they can all be used for - to grow and consume marijuana. The way in which the shops were set out, like an Aladdin's Cave for the cannabis culture ... no one, no matter how they try to distance themselves from the offending, could have failed to realise what was going on.''

During the nine-week trial, the court heard recorded conversations between undercover agents and Switched On Gardener staff at the firm's 16 shops.

Three Switched on Gardener employees were acquitted of all charges. They include business development manager Ricky Cochrane, distribution manager Andrew Mai and South Island manager Paul Barlow.

- APNZ

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