Very tiresome exercise.
Alan Woods estate: playboy punter boxed in on tax
THE AUSTRALIAN SEPTEMBER 19, 2015 12:00AM
Margin Call columnist
In Hong Kong last year punters plunged a record $18.9bn on races run on only two courses In Hong Kong last year punters plunged a record $18.9bn on races run on only two courses by just 1200 horses. Source: Getty Images < PrevNext >
Answering the door of her modest weatherboard house in one of Melbourne’s bastions of respectability, Malvern, Victoria Woods didn’t look like she was worth close to half a billion dollars.
Nor did the tracksuit-clad 40-year-old with the Fitbit on her wrist seem like the kind of person who’d get caught up in a Taxation Office investigation stretching from the courtrooms of Channel Islands tax haven Jersey to the office towers of Hong Kong.
A slight woman with long, straight black hair, Woods is the daughter of legendary gambler Alan Woods, who when he died in 2008 left behind a $939 million fortune reaped mostly from punting on the ponies at Hong Kong’s Happy Valley and Sha Tin racecourses.
While he spent the bulk of his time in Manila, his will, of just two pages, was filed in Victoria and dictated that the vast bulk of his estate be split between his daughter and her brother, Hong Kong-based Anthony Woods.
The existence of the ATO probe is revealed in a previously unreported court ruling made last December in Jersey, where Woods based his corporate vehicle, Libertarian Investments, named for his embrace of drug-fuelled hedonism and disdain for taxation.
While winnings from gambling are tax-free, whale gamblers have been in the taxman’s sights in recent years.
In 2012 the ATO went after one of Woods’ acquaintances, Tasmanian art collector David Walsh, and Walsh’s gambling associates David Steicke and Zeljko Ranogajec seeking $37m in back taxes, but settled the case the same year.
One professional punter told The Weekend Australian that, unlike Walsh’s group, he was careful never to employ anyone so that the ATO could not classify his punting as a business.
But the ATO’s probe of Woods’ estate centred on events following his death, rather than how he made his vast fortune.
Last year, the tax office sought information from Jersey authorities regarding the affairs of his estate, Libertarian, Victoria Woods and a Jersey trust called the Victoria Woods Trust.
The ATO investigation centred on a variation of Alan Woods’ will, approved by the Royal Court in early 2010, which resulted in shares in Libertarian being gifted to the Victoria Woods Trust.
Ruling on a dispute about whether the existence of the probe could be disclosed to Victoria Woods, the Royal Court’s Deputy Bailiff, William Bailhache, said there was “at least a probability that the Australian Competent Authority (a division of the ATO) is investigating some criminal activity, because there is reference made to fraud”. However, he also found that “it would seem to me to be somewhat unlikely that any criminal liability of Ms Woods will have arisen”.
He said the suggestion that Ms Woods and Mark Temple, the Jersey representative of Woods’ executor, would be found to have acted illegally in procuring the variation after getting legal advice “seems unlikely to put it mildly”.
It’s not clear whether the ATO investigation is still going.
When Woods died, he left $US8m in cash to a handful of named people — mostly women — in Hong Kong, the US and The Philippines, plus an income stream totalling about $2000 a month to two women in The Philippines. The remainder of his fortune was to be split between Victoria and Andrew.
Just $700,000 of the estate was inside the state of Victoria — cash, held in a Macquarie account.
The rest was spread across the world: more than $6.4m in HSBC and Bank of China accounts in Hong Kong and The Philippines and his controlling stakes in two tax haven companies, Libertarian and Poseidon Technology.
At the time of his death Libertarian was valued at $654m while Poseidon, registered in Caribbean British Overseas Territory the Turks and Caicos Islands, was worth $277m. There was also a $1.1m penthouse spread across the 32nd and 33rd floors of a gated skyscraper in Manila’s high-end Rockwell development.
And lurking somewhere in the empire was also an investment in betting exchange Betfair — in 2013, after Woods died, Victoria and Andrew told the London stock exchange they owned 2.5 per cent of the company. It’s not clear if they retain any stake.
Woods’ was a hard-won fortune, won by building a computer model of Hong Kong’s racing scene, where punters last year plunged a record $18.9bn on races run on only two courses by just 1200 horses.
A big fan of ecstasy and throwing big parties, he was also well-known to the Filipino bar girls in Hong Kong’s Wanchai district.
There were also run-ins with the local authorities, who weren’t sure how to handle interlopers who brought vast liquidity to tote operator the Hong Kong Jockey Club but at the same time didn’t pay tax on any of their winnings.
Some of the flavour of the wild world of big-time professional punting comes through in a Hong Kong court case over Libertarian’s investment in Betfair, then known as The Sporting Exchange, in 2002.
The investment was organised by Woods’ former friend and business associate, Tom Hall, described by Hong Kong High Court judge William Stone as someone who “inhabited the opaque penumbra of the commercial betting world”.
Hong Kong court records show that in May 2003 Woods agreed to invest £35m in Betfair through one of his vehicles, Momentum Limited, in a deal to be brokered by Hall.
In a series of purchases over the next year, Hall gradually built Woods’ stake towards a target of 10 per cent of the company.
However, Betfair told Hall Momentum wasn’t allowed to bring its shareholding to more than 6.5 per cent, for reasons that aren’t revealed in the Hong Kong judgment.
Nonetheless, Hall went ahead and bought another 1.8 million shares in Betfair, which would have brought Woods’ holding to 10 per cent.
However, the deal collapsed and Woods sued Hall for misusing his money.
In 2010, Justice Stone found for Woods, saying that despite Hall’s “charm”, some of his evidence “seemed to me to be wholly far-fetched and unbelievable, and if I may say so more fitting to the stories of Lewis Carroll than hard reality: in this connection the alleged transfer of £5.46m via Macau ‘junket rooms’ to the apparent stranger ‘Mr Schultz’ … provides a prime example”.
Hall was ordered to pay Woods’ estate £5.4m.
None of the people contacted by The Weekend Australian wanted to talk about Woods or the ATO investigation.
The ATO declined to comment on the case because the law prevents it talking about the affairs of individual taxpayers.
Anthony Woods couldn’t be located. Reached by phone, the executor of Alan Woods’ will, Hong Kong dental anaesthetist John Hawkswell-Curtis, hung up when asked about the tax office.
And at home in Malvern on Thursday afternoon, Victoria Woods was polite but firm. “I don’t want to talk to any reporters,” she said.
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Peter SEP 19, 2015
we should all be so lucky, having a great time and making lots of money while paying no tax.