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‘Architect’ of $105m Plutus Payroll scam jailed for 15 years


Son of former ATO deputy and a key co-conspirator both given lengthy terms for tax fraud.

By Naomi Neilson 10 minute read

The “architect” of the Plutus Payroll $105 million tax fraud conspiracy, Adam Cranston, 36, and co-conspirator Jason Onley, 56, have been both sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment with a non-parole period of 10 years. 

Justice Anthony Payne found Mr Cranston, son of former deputy tax commissioner Michael Cranston, was involved in the “consistent and persistent demonstration of fraud” from the very beginning and robbed the ATO of $6 million to purchase luxury cars, three properties, a caravan and a plane.

“I find that Mr Cranston was principally motivated by financial reward in participating in the conspiracies,” Justice Payne said.

Justice Payne determined Mr Cranston had been involved from the beginning and was well aware Plutus Payroll was not profitable.

Together with Peter Larcombe – who fled Australia and died in Los Angeles before the scheme came undone – Mr Cranston and Mr Onley were controllers of the second-tier companies that received funnelled funds from Plutus Payroll.

The Federal Court found these companies were the “engines” of the scheme, which ran between 2014 and 2017, and operated on the collection of gross wages then withholding GST and PAYG amounts that should have gone to the ATO.

Over $105 million was taken from legitimate clients who were attracted to the fee-free service and laundered through the second-tier companies. These had been run by “vulnerable, drug-addicted people” who were unaware of the wider conspiracy.

In addition to planning how Plutus would operate and discussing key developments in the scheme, Justice Payne found Mr Cranston recruited the straw directors and discussed with accountant-lawyer Dev Menon how the scheme could be concealed.

During a recorded conversation obtained by police about possible defences if they were questioned, Mr Menon told Mr Cranston he was “so good at this, you have a defence for everything”.

Justice Payne rejected submissions that Mr Cranston was deceived and that he was unaware of the inner workings of the scheme.

“The notion that Mr Cranston believed that Plutus was ever profitable was preposterous,” Justice Payne said.

Justice Payne also found that Mr Cranston’s belief the scheme was “immoral but not illegal” was false and insisted instead that the crime had an “insidious corroding effect on society”.

“Can I be clear, installing vulnerable, drug-addicted people and running up massive tax debts and planning to liquidate those companies is a very serious crime,” Justice Payne said.

He added that even as Mr Cranston faced his sentencing, he “does not appear to understand or respect the gross violation of societal norms” and had a “limited insight into his offending”.

Referring to a submission that Mr Cranston should be judged lower than Simon Anquetil – the chief executive and founder of Plutus - Justice Payne said unlike Mr Anquetil, Mr Cranston had been responsible for the second-tier companies. Justice Payne rejected the submission Mr Cranston should receive a lower sentence.

“It is clear Mr Anquetil never controlled the second companies,” Justice Payne said, adding that Mr Anquetil could never access these companies for money without Mr Cranston and Mr Onley.

As for Mr Onley, a former professional snowboarder, Justice Payne said he was involved in discussions with other key conspirators to increase efficiency and to keep the scheme from being discovered. He also “oversaw the back office” of the second-tier companies.

“He was a willing and active participant.”

“He was by mid-2016 taking millions of dollars which should have been paid to the ATO,” Justice Payne found.

“Mr Onley’s role was at the apex of the conspiracies.”

Both Mr Onley and Mr Cranston had been involved in discussions to blame the crumbling scheme on Mr Larcombe. This was then referred to be them both as the “Larcombe defence.”

The scheme ended with the arrests of many of the conspirators on 17 and 18 May 2017, just under a month after the ATO put a garnishee order on Plutus Payroll’s accounts.

Mr Cranston’s sister, Lauren Cranston, was jailed for five years for her role, while childhood friend Patrick Willmott received six years.

Mr Anquetil received seven-and-a-half years’ imprisonment.

Mr Menon was recently jailed for at least nine years.

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