Damien Grant opens up about his time in prison

Damien Grant: "If somebody wants to fight you, you have to engage"

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Today, Damien Grant features in NBR for his role as principal of Waterstone Insolvency, unwinding the mess at companies that have gone off the rails – or in his role as a conservative political commentator. He's an entrepreneur (Waterstone is just one of several business interests), a family man and someone with a reputation for being brutally honest.

Things were racier in his youth. 

At age 26, Grant was sentenced to 30 months’ jail for his part in a multi-million-dollar share-dealing scam.

He was living the high life, spending money on his lifestyle and travel, and "working" when he wanted to.

"It’s intellectually very interesting because you’re operating against the state," he says now, of the lifestyle back then.

"There are people who want to stop you doing what you’re doing. Once you beat the system and get some money out of it, there is an arrogance and a hubris that comes with that. 

“Here I am in my early 20s, and the government and state have set up all these things – and I managed to beat it. Aren’t I clever."

Things began to unravel when he and some cohorts converted some of their ill-gotten scrip to gold, then tried to smuggle the ingots out of the country. They got caught.

Initially, he made bail. Then, panicking, he went on the run for a month, hiding with friends down the line. But he found the freedom to be illusory; he had little freedom of choice or action as he tried to "go off the reservation." 

When he returned to Auckland, this time as a known flight risk, he knew his High Court hearing would not go well (read documents relating to the case and its aftermath here and here) – and when the judge adjourned the session for lunch, he walked over the road to a cafe and bought three cigarette packets (the maximum he could take to prison). 

He can't remember who else was in the van, only the fear.

His purchase was indeed prescient. The judge ordered he be held on remand, and he was bundled into a police van and taken to Mt Eden Prison, where he would stay for the weeks until his sentencing. 

Grant's first three months, at the gothic Mt Eden then, post-sentencing, Waikeria – the minimum to high-security 650-prisoner jail south of Hamilton (that has recently been at the centre of the "mega prison" debate) – were the hardest.

There were only three or four other white faces, he says.

He had to share a cell, and witnessed some brutal scenes. 

At one point he sat playing chess with a fellow inmate as he listened to the screams from a known sex offender being beaten in a toilet block "and beaten hard." Guards arrived and the victim was segregated but it was a terrifying reminder of "just how Lord of the Flies-vulnerable you were if the mood of that group of people went against you," he says.

He tried to keep to himself but it wasn't an option.

He learned that to survive, you had to stand up for yourself. To gain respect, you had to fight back, even if you lost.

"If somebody wants to fight you, you have to engage," he says.

Grant himself survived on his wits. He developed a higher-brow defence mechanism, revolving around verbally engaging with other prisoners, forming links by asking them the old prison-film standby, "what are you in for?"

He recounts, "Oddly enough some of the harder guys, the more senior guys, once they were confident in talking to me, they were quite interesting — senior gang guys. Junior guys would talk about selling drugs, [and] the senior guys would talk about the commercialisation — how they ran their dubious criminal empires. I got to know some of those guys and formed a good relationship."

He also bonded with other inmates by accepting an invite to play "Crash," a bone-crunching version of rugby played on hard asphalt. It sounds unforgiving but Grant says he actually enjoyed it because it was the only opportunity for physical contact.

He read books, often many times overs. He bought cigarettes, which he had to ration to three or four a day. Mainly, he got spectacularly bored.

Move to the volcanic plateau
Things got easier when Grant was moved to Tongariro/Rangipo Prison, the low-to-medium security prison-farm at Turangi, where he would spend the rest of his sentence (which, in the end, was 13 months, plus his time on remand).

He got his own room and found that, "if you stayed within the rules, it was a relatively easy experience." He cut down trees, wielding a chainsaw badly, and befriended local farmers.

He says the hardest, scariest thing was trying to get his head around what he would do when he got out.

In the end he was, of course, able to found and build Waterstone. He's always been up-front about his past (albeit with coverage by NBR and other media about his escapades giving him little choice at times).

Life after porridge
By choosing to live a relatively high-profile life through his political commentary and newspaper column, Grant was aware his past would always be highlighted.

At times it has hurt. NBR initially resisted publishing anything by Grant. But his self-published pieces on business were so good that he eventually inveigled his way in.

Still, his past lingers. One member of the NBR View production crew, who knows people financially hurt by Grant's offending, was disgusted this interview was ever arranged.

“It’s not on my website and it’s not a point of difference that I look to sell my business with," Grant says of his background.

“But when you look at what I do — I’m a liquidator. I’ve got millions of dollars sitting in my trust account. I got out there, I ask people, I ask banks. I was in a meeting yesterday with Inland Revenue, asking for its support [with a liquidation].

"I look at it like this: People like you who don’t have a conviction for dishonesty are entitled to a presumption of integrity; you are entitled to think that other people out there will assess you as an honest person. Your actions can confirm or dissuade people from their default position but you’re entitled to that presumption of honesty. I’m not, because I have these convictions for dishonesty," he says.

"So, if people use that as their starting point, I can’t complain about that. What I need to do is demonstrate as to why the wider commercial community and my staff and the banks and people who engage with me that I am entitled to be considered as an honest person despite what I’ve done in the past.

"And if I’m going to ask people to do that, then the quid pro quo is that, if someone like yourself says ‘hey, I want to talk about this stuff,’ I can’t duck away and hide."

Is there someone you'd like to see in the Raw and Real hot seat? Email chris@chriskeall.com


27 · Got a question about this story? Leave it in Comments & Questions below.


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27 Comments & Questions

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PR click bait. Unfortunate journalism.

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I proposed this interview. I think Damien Grant would rather not highlight his past (do you share the worst things you've done?). But for the reasons he explains above, he does feel obligated to talk about it when people come asking.

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Great article Chris

The difference between Damien and some of these self righteous knobs commenting is that he owned up, did the time and then reinvented his life. Good on him.

Many of these self righteous people rip off the public daily and get away with it - and many are so called Christians who are meant to forgive. For instance
Most Bank staff overselling inhouse financial products clients don't want or need but are forced into it
Insurance companies and agents - overselling and churning clients between insurance companies
Most financial advisors and fund managers - never independent and always promote the product with the best incentive to them - once again particularly where a Bank is involved
Sharebrokers -
Real estate agents etc etc etc

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Now you're the one doing the judging

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" ... and someone with a reputation for being brutally honest." Well as someone that was sent to prison for a multi-million dollar share trading scam.... maybe not that honest.

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It's a question of whether people change, and whether you condemn someone forever or give them a chance to prove they've changed their ways after they've done their time (of course, that's easier to say if you're not one of their victims).

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It would seem that you're not that convinced yourself?

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I notice you didnt ask Damien if Waterstone had ever made a single creditor distribution?

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A very important question, and one well worth asking.

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Nope. It wasn't an article on Waterstone (which has, as mentioned, featured in various other NBR stories; its performance is of course contingent in part on the state of the companies it's asked to liquidate).

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What were the actual details of the share trading scam and when did it happen? I don't remember it at all.

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Google.

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That's for another day. The focus of this article is on what it's like for a white collar criminal to do time.

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Further, we've had a bunch of readers ask this question. So while the focus remains on Grant's jail time, I have added links to court documents in the paragraph about his court appearance. 

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I've known a few people who have spent time at Her Majesty's institutions, and they are almost always interesting people with stories and lessons to share. I completely understand how victims and those who know victims would want financial criminals to be shunned for life, and sympathise with them. I probably wouldn't forgive someone who directly ripped me off either.

But that doesn't mean everyone in the community is going to be unforgiving. Sometimes the best solution is to sit down with the affected person, hear their story, understand the reasons (never the excuses) for their crime, and ask them what they are going to do next with their lives. Quite often, that answer determines whether friendships can be salvaged and forgiveness can occur.

I've never met Damian Grant, though I do recognise he is an interesting person and he has a right to get on with his life. If he wants to raise his head above the parapet and say something that might invite scorn as well as free-flowing useful commentary, his life is free to live.

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I was always taught unforgiveness is mostly detrimental to the person who won't or can't forgive. As for his crimes I don't know anyone who hasn't acted dishonestly. We just don't all get caught

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I would suggest a few here would enjoy the chance to sit down with Rod Petricivich or (the non-convicted) Mark Hotchin and swap perspectives for a while.

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Swap perspectives, you mean ask when they will get their hard earned back.

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We have all come up short at times. Forgiveness is a necessary step in many sectors of life, otherwise you can end up carrying it around with you forever. Baggage they call it. And that's no fun, believe me.

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One minor but amusing point of detail arising from Damo's recounting of his story is that he talks about operating against the state and beating the system. But he was an active member of the Young Nats in West Auckland at the time of the offending, according to newspaper reports at the time.

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How about a follow on to this subject, with stories about ex-finance company bosses? Or even better interviews with their wives about how they were more than happy to safeguard their husbands ill gotten gains by being the trustees of the trusts that it was all hidden in.
The one thing that amazed me about that, was that not one of them ever came forward and said that they were unhappy, or felt any guilt about doing it. I suppose it just goes to show what type of people they were.

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One of the best lines I have heard, and follow, is that, "Good investors will tell you about their wins. Great investors will tell you about their losses and what they learnt from them."

Good to see you wholly accepting who you once were and making the most of it. I never hope to meet you in a professional capacity one day (understandable why!), but would love to hear your story in all its guts and glory goodness!

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The white collar boys hate prison more so than the average crim because they have to learn very quickly that they're now surrounded by grown-up men with child like mentality that cannot be talked to like you would talk to another adult. You have to talk to them like you would talk to a little child, and if you don't, you can expect a severe beating at the very least. They have to be on their toes 100% of the time. It's tough for them.

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This industry needs urgent regulation - the Drever / Grocers Market issues are a glowing example I would have thought .......

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We are all Prisoners under Labour control ! So as Taxation convicts we have no escape unless Judith Collins( J.C) saves us from Lucinder and Hard Labour !

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I admire your honesty Damien.

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How is this business news I can use?

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