Hogan takes on taxman

By Greg Ansley

You could almost paraphrase the character Crocodile Dundee as Paul Hogan, the man who created Australia's most famous movie hero, prepares for yet another court hearing next month: "That's not a lawsuit. This is a lawsuit."

Only this time Hogan is the man holding the switchblade, and the Australian Crime Commission is wielding the monstrous sheathknife. The Federal Court will decide who blinks and runs.

Hogan, almost impossibly fresh-faced for a man who turned 70 last October, will be back in court again in the latest twist in a five-year battle against the real heavies of Australian law, fighting to protect himself from a massive tax bill and possible criminal action.

With him are his artistic collaborator and business partner, John Cornell - the intellectually challenged lifesaver Strop in television's 1970s Paul Hogan Show - and their accountant Tony Stewart, who face claims they have avoided paying vast sums in tax.

All have been swept up in the net cast by Operation Wickenby, a collaborative investigation by a swathe of the Federal Government's most powerful agencies into offshore tax evasion that at last count was targeting total liabilities of more than A$300 million ($368.5 million) allegedly stashed abroad by wealthy Australians.

Hogan and his colleagues have been shooting back with all the considerable ammunition at their disposal, adding the actor's wit to the battery of lawyers handling their case.

So far Operation Wickenby's best-known victim has been Glenn Wheatley, one of the nation's most successful music entrepreneurs, who after his own career with the 1960s band The Master's Apprentices managed international hit-makers The Little River Band, revived singer John Farnham's flagging career and launched Delta Goodrem's rise to fame.

Wheatley has recently been released from jail after serving time for tax evasion.

Hogan used the entrepreneur's conviction to lash Operation Wickenby as a parallel for the investigation into his own affairs, telling the media: "I know the people of Australia sleep well knowing Glenn Wheatley's off the streets. It's terrifying to think he would be on the street."

It was the kind of off-the-cuff comeback that has made Australia love Hogan.

He is more than just a larrikin with an irreverent sense of humour who has articulated the national character as Australians love to see it: laconic, tough mavericks who take on the world with a grin and a joke.

Hogan took that image and sold it to a world that lapped it up.

The truth is, of course, that Hogan is an astute, successful businessman who leveraged his imagery into a fortune, and who now faces allegations that he used the arcane world of international finance to avoid paying his dues to the Australian taxman.

Hogan and his colleagues deny this, and the allegations have yet to be tested in court. No charges have been laid and the New Zealand Herald does not suggest that they are guilty of any breach of the law.

But if any crime was proven, Australians would be faced with an icon who had bilked the system that ultimately pays for the nation's health, education, roads and the rest of the services other taxpayers contribute to.

How they would react to such a finding is difficult to judge. Given the legal situation, public comment sensibly does not exist. Anecdotally, barbecue conversations suggest that many would hold a grudging admiration for the actor.

Though Australians have a healthy contempt for the very rich who flout the law and evade taxes, the tax office is as universally despised there as it is anywhere else in the world. Beating the taxman is a national aspiration.

Beyond this, Hogan is a bloke from the bush who won the world with nothing but his wit, taking Australia along with him. Australians still think of him as the worker in shorts on the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge, the knockabout from his eponymous show, and as Mick Dundee, the only guy who could wear a tight leather waistcoat over a bare torso in New York and not look suspect.

Hogan was born in the remote New South Wales Outback town of Lightning Ridge, black opal centre of the world, way in the west of the state, just south of the Queensland border.

You have to have a sense of humour to live there. The hills around the town are called Bald, Lunatic and Pig, and apart from a once-a-year rodeo the high point of the social calendar is the annual goat and wheelie bin races through the main street.

The town's website list of prominent people comprises one: Paul Hogan.

Lightning Ridge has not featured large in Hogan's life since he charmed Australia as a quick-witted painter and union organiser on the Harbour Bridge, teamed with fellow Outbacker Cornell - from Kalgoorlie in Western Australia - to produce his top-rated TV show, and then sold Australia to the world.

He was the star of the nation's "Come and Say G'Day" campaign that ran for 16 years, doubling tourism (especially from the United States) in its first three years and immortalising the invitation to "throw another shrimp on the barbie".

Then followed the movie Crocodile Dundee, Australia's most successful film ever, making more than US$350 million ($460 million) and providing Hogan and Cornell with a continuing river of gold from its US$200 million ($262 million) box office sequel and video, DVD and other spinoffs.

Even the relative failures of his subsequent movies, and his bitter divorce from Noelene - his wife of 30 years - to marry American Crocodile Dundee co-star Linda Kozlowski did not significantly dent his popularity.

Noelene Hogan was later to comment: "I had him when he was young, virile and handsome. He's still got a good butt and good legs, but she's got him in older times when all he wants to do is sit around the house."

And then came Operation Wickenby. Led by the Tax Office, it marshalled the resources of the Federal Police, the organised crime-busting Crime Commission, the corporate watchdog the Securities and Investment Commission, and the Australian Transaction and Reports Analysis Centre, which tracks money as it moves in and out of the country.

The operation's key aim is to find money hidden overseas and unravel tax fraud using foreign tax havens. So far it has launched more than 20 investigations, charged 42 people, undertaken more than 1200 audits, seized assets worth A$76 million ($93 million) and claimed back A$100 million ($122 million) in unpaid tax.

Five years ago Hogan, Cornell and Stewart rose into Wickenby's sights.

Investigators began probing money held in offshore havens managed by Swiss firm Strachans, and allegations that the money was withdrawn in Australia using Visa cards without the knowledge of the Tax Office. The Crime Commission has since launched a separate investigation into allegations of possible criminal tax evasion.

Operation Wickenby seized or won access to confidential financial records held in Australia, the United States and Switzerland, and the Tax Office was this month reported to be ready to present Hogan, Cornell and Stewart with a final bill for unpaid taxes.

Meanwhile, Hogan and colleagues have been fighting in the courts to prevent the use of the documents by the Crime Commission. Next month the commission will go to the Federal Court to try to stop these moves.

For his part, Hogan continues to protest his innocence, taunting the Tax Office: "Come and get me, you bastards. I've got nothing to worry about."

Hogan said he had paid so much tax in Australia that the Tax Office should erect a statue of him. Investigators would prefer a legal headstone.

- NZ Herald

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