Gavin Bennett, the man at the centre of a $26 million fraud investigation, lived a life of luxury in Sydney while doing business with models and lingerie designers.
Mr Bennett is the founder and managing director of Christchurch-based IT group DataSouth. South Canterbury Finance, itself in receivership, appointed receivers BDO to DataSouth on March 30.
Two days after receivership a Serious Fraud Office investigation was launched and the Auckland High Court froze Mr Bennett’s New Zealand assets.
The court heard South Canterbury was owed $25.7 million supposedly secured by leases but receivers claimed only $2.6 million of actual leases existed. Mr Bennett was also paid a salary of $150,000.
A National Business Reviewinvestigation into Mr Bennett’s activities here and in Australia has revealed business links to a Polish model and make-up artist and a British actress’ lingerie start-up.
Questions about the closeness of the relationship between Mr Bennett and South Canterbury staff managing his loan have also led the finance company to conduct a review into its handling of DataSouth.
Million dollar views
Mr Bennett commuted between Christchurch and Sydney and his residence in Australia was a $A2.5 million apartment in The Rocks with panoramic views of the Opera House.
NBRunderstands the rent for the apartment and another in the same building kept for guests and visitors, was paid for by DataSouth.
The apartment is listed in Australia’s business registry as the official address of DataSouth Business Solutions Australia Pty.
Bennett’s business with actress and model
DataSouth's Australian business has Mr Bennett and Marlena Davis as directors.
Ms Davis is a 42-year-old Polish-born former TV make up artist and “success coach” who runs the Bondi-based image consultancy and personal shopping service Law of Attraction.
She did not return NBR’s calls.
Mr Bennett, 53, also signed on in March as a director and 10% shareholder of Mariesa Mae Pty. Mariesa Crowder, the other director and 90% owner of Mariesa Mae, told NBR she met Mr Bennett over drinks and gave him her business card.
“I only know him from where I used to work – he would come in and have drink there,” the 32-year-old English-born actor said. She declined to identify her workplace.
Ms Crowder said Mr Bennett planned to go into business with her: “He was supposed to basically help fund my lingerie line, which I was starting up.”
She stressed the collapse of DataSouth had prevented the plans being followed through: “There was no money that changed hands. He no longer has any involvement.”
Mr Bennett defended his involvement with the two women.
“Marlena was a friend of mine with an IT background. She was never involved specifically in DataSouth, aside from projects from time to time and running training for New Zealand staff,” he said.
Mr Bennett said Ms Davis was engaged as a director because he needed an Australian citizen involved to register DataSouth as a limited liability company.
“As for Mariesa, she was a friend I was helping out to get the legal entity set up for her business. It never ever developed into anything because events in New Zealand took over,” he said.
South Canterbury initiates review
South Canterbury receivers McGrathNicol did not answer NBRcalls this week but South Canterbury’s general manager Mike Skilling said the company had a series of checks and balances to manage loans and a review was being undertaken of the DataSouth account.
“There are processes and systems that exist. We’ll have our own internal review over what failures there were, if any,” he said.
NBR understands Mr Bennett extended hospitality to South Canterbury staff managing his loan, and Mr Skilling said, if he uncovered evidence of this, action would be taken.
“Employees are governed by a code of conduct, and we take seriously any breach of that,” he said.
Mr Skilling said he had only joined the company in March and had little to do with handling the DataSouth loan and Mr Bennett.
“I haven’t met him myself but obviously he’s a colourful character. I haven’t heard much about him other than that he’d based himself in Sydney and apparently enjoyed life,” he said.
NBR understands the first loan extended by South Canterbury to DataSouth was made by subsidiary Southland Finance in 2003 and was latterly managed out of the finance company’s Christchurch office.
Grant Yorkstone was then head of Southland Finance, but he cited the SFO investigation in declining to comment about his relationship with Mr Bennett.
“I’ve had no communication with him since this all happened. I’m not in a position to discuss anything at this stage,” he said.
Mr Yorkstone said he was unaware of South Canterbury staff being entertained by Mr Bennett.
Bennett claims co-operation
Mr Bennett denied wrongdoing but said he was constrained by what he could say
“I am co-operating with all the relevant people – receivers, the liquidators and the SFO.
“Anything else specific to the whole DataSouth thing I’m not wishing to get into at this point.”
A spokeswoman for the SFO said she was unable to comment on Mr Bennett’s claimed co-operation as it was a continuing investigation.
The spokeswoman said the investigation was progressing but updates could be expected within the next month.