Marco Polo Social Club in Queanbeyan was sold to a company run by the family of NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro. Callum Foote investigates the intriguing circumstances of a deal which saw John and his father Domenico, who were club directors, end with the clubhouse.
It had been the heart of the Italian community since 1975. Marches started and finished there. Political meetings, community gatherings, sporting contests and local fairs were held at Queanbeyan’s Marco Polo Social Club. So there was heartbreak all around in the Italian community when the club closed in the early 2000s, reportedly due to “an unforgiving fiscal market“.
But what led to the club’s downfall appeared to be some financial skulduggery by Nationals MP John Barilaro and his father Domenico, which appeared to net their company $700,000.
The club had hit a difficult financial period, but by 1990 it was back on track thanks to club members banding together to raise roughly $80,000.
Dom and John Barilaro joined the club in the early 1990s. The intrigue behind the club’s closure can be dated back to March 1994 when, with Domenico as a director, the Marco Polo Club took out a $621,000 mortgage with NAB as records from the NSW Land Registry Office show. The mortgage documents don’t show a reason for the borrowing.
Within two years, half of this loan had been repaid. The club was again thriving, especially thanks to the roughly $700,000 worth of pokie machines the club owned, which provided a significant income stream.
However, around the same time, documents show that in January 1996, the remainder of the mortgage with NAB (some $300,000) was discharged. Documents obtained by Michael West Media show that just before the mortgage was repaid in full, the Marco Polo club was transferred to a newly created company called Monaro Properties Pty Ltd. One of its founding directors was Domenico Barilaro; John Barilaro was its secretary at one stage; and as of 7 December 1995, the Barilaro family held shares in Monaro Properties.
It appears that Domenico Barilaro, the director of both Marco Polo Social Club and Monaro Properties (along with other club directors), had sold the Marco Polo clubhouse to his company for $300,000.
None of the club members contacted by Michael West Media knew anything about the NAB mortgage or the transfer of ownership of the clubhouse. It is also unclear what the directors of the Marco Polo Club knew. Suffice to say that as of 2001, six of the Marco Polo club’s nine directors were also involved with Monaro Properties.
Rent started being charged
Once Monaro Properties owned the clubhouse, it started charging the membership rent. It is unknown what the rent initially was when Monaro Properties took over the club in 1996, but in a three-year period between 2000-2003, the rent increased 60%; from $45,000 pa to $72,000 pa.
The club started experiencing financial difficulties soon after Monaro Properties took ownership. This was despite the club having an operating revenue of about $300,000 in 2000 and operating revenue of $376,529 in 2001.
By 2003, the club’s debt had ballooned to $370,000. The directors of the Marco Polo Social Club cited this debt as one of the reasons for the need to wind up the club.
In May 2003, John Barilaro signed an affidavit in the ACT Supreme Court stating that the club was “not in a position to continue to meet its ongoing financial commitments” and resigned his directorship. He cited the club’s financial difficulties were due to “low membership numbers, low number of poker machines, difficulties in relation to the catering contract, and low patronage”.
Dom Barilaro had been a director of Marco Polo Social club and club president until the club was forced into liquidation in 2003 by Dom’s associated company Monaro Properties. John, meanwhile, was also a director of Marco Polo Social Club at various times between 1999 and 2003.
Members owed money
Frank Pangollo, one of the first directors of the club and former mayor of Queanbeyan, told Michael West Media that a significant portion of the debt amassed by the club was in fact money that the members had banded together to pay back in 1990. Once 13 years of interest was added, this debt was calculated at $159,000 in 2003.
Mr Pangollo said the members were willing to forgo this money. But club directors refused the offer. Five days after John signed the affidavit in May 2003, lawyers representing Monaro Properties sent the Social Club a letter demanding $9,000 in unpaid rent. If it wasn’t paid, the letter said, company representatives would “enter the premises and take possession of all goods owned by the Marco Polo Club [and] lock the Club out”.
Even though their offer of forgoing their debt had been rejected, club members were still trying to buy back the club house. They settled on a sum of $760,000 with Monaro Properties and put down a $76,000 deposit.
However, at the last minute Monaro Properties appear to have reneged on the deal by upping the price by more than $100,000 to $860,000, a price which the club members could not afford.
The following year, in 2004, Monaro Properties sold the now vacant clubhouse and land to a company called Greyhaze Ptd Limited for $1.025 million. Greyhaze is owned by Bruno Rosin and his family. Rosin was a founding member of Monaro Properties and acted on the company’s behalf when evicting the Marco Polo Club membership in 2003.
Three years later, in 2007, Greyhaze sold the property for $3.4 million after redeveloping the site into commercial buildings.
Where did the pokie machines go?
Where did the $700,000 worth of poker machines go when the Barilaros’ company took possession of the Marco Polo club house? No record is made of them by administrators, liquidators or in the club’s records.
We don’t know if John Barilaro made a financial gain from the Clubhouse transactions. He declined to respond to questions. We don’t know if he or interests associated with him held units in the Monaro Properties Unit Trust. He no longer held shares in Monaro properties after the mid-1990s.
We know that in 1996, Monaro Properties took out another mortgage on the property, which was signed for by the Trust.
In 2016, a $425,000 grant was awarded by the NSW government in order to rebuild the Marco Polo Club led again by Domenico Barilaro. This was an initiative of the NSW Stronger Communities Fund which was, at that time, run by John Barilaro. The Deputy Premier has a track record of awarding grants which disproportionately benefit his own electorate.
This was a joint investigation with FriendlyJordies.
Callum Foote is a journalist and Revolving Doors editor for Michael West Media. He has studied the impact of undue corporate influence over Australian policy decisions and the impact this has on popular interests.