Liquidators of bankrupt mining magnate Joe Gutnick’s failed Legend International are investigating the transfer of phosphate deposits worth up to $87 million to a company controlled by his sister and nephew as the group teetered on the brink of collapse in April.
The potentially lucrative tenements have emerged as a key asset of Mr Gutnick’s former empire, and the best hope major creditor the Indian Farmers Fertiliser Co-operative has of recovering some of the $79m it is owed by the magnate and Legend as the result of a bruising legal battle.
With IFFCO’s backing, Legend’s liquidators, Mark Korda and Craig Shepherd of Korda Mentha, have launched lawsuits in Australia and the United States over a deal transferring ownership of Legend subsidiary Paradise Phosphate, which owned the tenements, to Queensland Phosphate, a company controlled by Mr Gutnick’s sister Pnina Feldman and her son Sholom.
Ms Feldman declined to say how much Queensland Phosphate paid for Paradise but insisted the deal was completely above board. “Don’t believe any silly rumours about things not being legitimate,” she told The Australian yesterday.
“Legal advice has been obtained all along the way.”
The Paradise deal is just part of a complex business web established by Mr Gutnick spanning Australia, Singapore and the US that will now be sifted through by Korda Mentha and the fallen mogul’s personal bankruptcy trustees, Andrew Yeo and Gess Rambaldi of Pitcher Partners.
Mr Gutnick declared himself bankrupt with debts of $275m on Friday, beating IFFCO, which had a bankruptcy hearing scheduled for the Federal Court on Tuesday, to the punch.
He owes IFFCO $54m personally, and Legend owes it $25m, over a failed joint venture.
Significantly, the sheer number of personal creditors and the scale of unpaid debts threaten to swamp IFFCO’s claim on his estate.
Over $130m of Mr Gutnick’s debts are owed to relatives, including a $30.7m loan to his wife, Stera Gutnick.
While he once presided over a $300m fortune and enjoyed the nickname “Diamond Joe” thanks to investments in diamond and gold projects, his statement of affairs obtained by The Australian this week revealed a threadbare estate comprising a $2m superannuation fund and close to $16,000 in cash.
Asked by The Australian why he owed so much money to relatives, including his wife, and members of the Jewish community, Mr Gutnick said: “No comment.”
He repeated the remark when asked whether all the debts were legitimate and the impact the scale and quantum of debt would have upon IFFCO’s claim.
Asked when he would be able to speak more openly about the bankruptcy, he replied: “Call me in a month.”
The fortunes of Mr Gutnick and Legend — which had assets of just $US3.58m ($4.7m), according to US bankruptcy filings — would have been much larger if Mr Gutnick’s dreams for the Paradise phosphate project had been realised.
In a 2010 presentation on Legend’s website, the company told investors the tenements could generate average earnings of $US151m a year and had a net present value of $US1.5bn.
The phosphate business was worth “$75m to $87m, with a midpoint of $81m”, KPMG said in a valuation filed with the Victorian Supreme Court.
How it came to be transferred to Queensland Phosphate is not yet clear. According to US Securities and Exchange Commission filings, on November 24 last year Queensland Phosphate agreed to inject between $1m and $2.5m into Legend by buying convertible bonds.
In return, Legend gave Queensland Phosphate “a charge over its entire shareholding in Paradise Phosphate”, and Paradise “guaranteed the repayment of the face value of the bonds”, Legend told the SEC.
Pnina and Sholom Feldman were also appointed to the boards of both Legend and Paradise.
US Federal Court and Victorian Supreme Court documents show that on March 11 Queensland Phosphate appointed Christopher Palmer as receiver of Paradise and the shares in it owned by Legend.
“When we saw that Legend and Joseph Gutnick were not doing so well, we put in a receiver to get our security to get these tenements,” Ms Feldman said.
“Obviously my brother was absolutely distraught when he found out we’d put in a receiver,” Ms Feldman said.
“I don’t think he was quite as distraught as he was yesterday, with all the newspaper articles.
“I feel a bit sorry for the situation.”
Mr Palmer, who did not respond to calls and emails, transferred the Paradise shares to Queensland Phosphate on April 22, according to Victorian court documents.
Solicitor for IFFCO, Michael Sloan of Ashurst, told the court the sale went ahead despite a warning from his firm in February to “refrain from taking any action that would put the assets of Legend out of reach”.
Mr Gutnick’s bankruptcy trustees now face the daunting task of assessing the merits of each creditor, including the mogul’s wife. Mr Rambaldi yesterday said he would act in the interests of creditors to “identify, secure and realise the assets, income and property of Mr Gutnick’s personal estate”.
He said he had custody of Mr Gutnick’s Australian passport and signalled the administration faced a long haul, pointing out Mr Gutnick’s affairs were “complex and the investigation will require an assessment of a number of matters, including the nature of the creditors’ claims”.
The Australian can reveal that in addition to Legend, registered in the US state of Delaware, and the 55 Australian companies and trusts declared in his statement of affairs, Mr Gutnick is also the sole director and shareholder
of Singaporean investment holding company Merlin Diamonds Pte Ltd.
Company records show he was a resident of the city state as of November 14, 2014, when he filed a change of address.