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Did Commbank, corporate cops and senior journos collude to take down bank victims advocate?

by Lisa-Jane Roberts | May 19, 2023 | Business, Latest Posts

Did Commbank, ASIC regulators and senior journalists conspire to stub out the pesky bank victims advocate Geoff Shannon? A Lisa-Jane Roberts story of the stunning evidence which emerged in a Queensland court this week in Crown v Shannon.

Earlier this week, Southport Magistrate’s Court heard the case of Crown v Shannon, in which the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) accused Geoffrey Shannon, who is known for helping bank victims through the Unhappy Banking advocacy group, of having acted as a director of the company Business and Personal Solutions (BAPS) while bankrupt. 

It’s a charge Shannon vigorously denies.

ASIC’s case relied almost entirely on evidence provided by Natasha Keys, which was the subject of what the defence characterised as an extremely “one-eyed” investigation, rife with cognitive bias, allocated to early-career ASIC investigator Nathan Miller in July 2019.

The narrative the regulator sought to establish throughout the hearing was simple: a thorough, well-documented investigation based on authoritative evidence from the unimpeachably reliable witness, Natasha Keys, will show that Geoffrey Shannon acted criminally and, therefore, must accept punishment.

However, much like the looking-glass world of Eduardo Galeano, reality appeared to reflect the exact opposite of that narrative as Saul Holt KC, acting for the defence, methodically devastated Ms Keys’ credibility and, with sparing, yet unerringly precise brushstrokes, illustrated the absolute incompetence of Mr Miller’s investigation, as reported by MWM on Wednesday last.

“Hi Babe” Case: Commbank boss Matt Comyn revealed in payments to ASIC star witness

In addition to providing a riveting couple of days, the trial, which has been adjourned until August 22, when final submissions will be put to the court, has given rise to several questions concerning, yet again, the conduct of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) and the viability of the under-funded, over-stretched ASIC, even in the face of the regulator’s impending restructure.

As reported by MWM on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, it came to light during the cross-examination of Ms Keys that the chief executive of the CBA, Matt Comyn, had been personally involved in discussions regarding Keys’ debt to the bank, and the subsequent statement of claim that she lodged in 2016, claiming the bank had breached the terms of the Farm Debt Mediation Act. 

Astonishingly, not only does Mr Comyn appear to have met face-to-face with Keys on more than one occasion, but he also seems to have called her personally to tell her the final amount of her settlement.

This is despite her having already been made aware of that amount through an email exchange with Jacqueline Schrader, general counsel for regulatory projects at the bank at the time. “He just called to tell me,” Keys affirmed when questioned by Holt.

One may wonder if it is normal practice for a man in the position of Mr Comyn to casually dial up errant debtors for a quick chat about what, in his world, must seem like a rather paltry amount. If it isn’t, one may also wonder what prompted such extraordinary behaviour in this case. Perhaps Mr Comyn will just call to tell?

Equally surprising were the terms of Keys’ settlement, in which the bank not only agreed to wipe the approximately $270,000 of outstanding monies owed the bank under a mortgage she had been unable to sustain on a farm property badly affected by multiple floods, but also paid her an additional $320,000 cash. 

Could it have had anything to do with dirt? At times, Mr Holt’s questioning seemed to suggest that it might have. 

In 2015, the court heard, Ms Keys allegedly tried to engage solicitor Spencer Slasberg on speculative terms to help her negotiate with the CBA, suggesting that she had valuable information on Shannon that the bank would want. Sensible Slasberg did not accept the proposition.

However, Ms Keys seems to have been determined to extract some measure of financial gain (and/or emotional satisfaction) from the copious amounts of information she had gathered on her former lover and colleague, and she turned to Jeff Morris OAM, who is now an advocate for financial services victims, to help her with her claim.

Curious cameo from whistleblower 

Slightly bizarre though it may seem, Mr Morris, who despite, a) having blown the whistle quite spectacularly on the CBA in 2008, and, b) being neither a practising accountant nor a practising lawyer, was paid $500 an hour by the bank to help Ms Keys with her negotiations for the settlement in (questionable) accordance with the bank’s allocation of up to $10,000 for professional tax or legal advice. Generouser and generouser, as Alice might have exclaimed.

In fact, the bank appears to positively relish spending inordinate amounts of money to make life difficult for Mr Shannon. In a text message exchange about the CBA between Keys and Shannon in September 2017, which was tendered to the court this week, Ms Keys asked, “how many millions did the bank spend on pursuing you?” to which Mr Shannon replied, “They told me to my face in July last year. Geoff, I’ve signed checks exceeding $10 million on your matter, and we haven’t stopped yet.”

“Hi Babe” Case: ASIC witnesses mauled in court, Commbank embarrassed, evidence ends abruptly

Upon reading this exchange to the court, Mr Holt put it to Ms Keys that the exchange showed “how well [she] knew that the CBA was interested in Mr Shannon and the money that they had spent pursuing Mr Shannon.” 

Somewhat mystifyingly, given that she claims never to have offered the bank information on Shannon, Keys blurted out, “the bank wasn’t interested in what I had to offer anyway,” when Holt pressed her on this point. However, she later vigorously denied Holt’s surmising that “the reason you were able to talk about the CBA and information about Geoff Shannon is because you have tried to provide them with it and they’ve gratefully received it”.

Dishing the dirt

The theory that Ms Keys’ settlement was somehow connected to her dishing up some well-seasoned dirt on Mr Shannon would, naturally, require further investigation, although there were odd hints during the hearing that gently fanned an ember whose patient smoulder may yet spark a rather inconvenient fire for the bank.

During Tuesday’s cross-examination of Ms Keys, the defence provided evidence that communications between Keys and Shannon had remained “friendly, professional [and] regular” from early 2017 through to mid-2018, despite the earlier breakdown of their romantic relationship, and Ms Keys’ stepping down from business dealings with BAPS and several other projects that she and Mr Shannon had been planning.

Yet, as Mr Holt noted, Ms Keys “cut off friendly, long-standing contact with Geoff Shannon” in June 2018, which, according to dates given by the witness under oath on Monday, coincided precisely with her settlement with the CBA. However, Tuesday’s production of the actual deed of settlement and several related emails showed that the bank did not pay Ms Keys until November 2018. 

Precisely, said the Butler

In the interim, the court heard, Ms Keys started confidentially supplying journalist Ben Butler with considerable amounts of information about Mr Shannon, including privileged details about clients. On August 3 2018, Butler wrote to Keys, “that’s precisely the kind of documents I am after,” and thanked her, adding that he would be busy with the Royal Commission for two weeks but “should have more time after that.”

When questioned about this, Ms Keys said that she supposed he had meant more time to write his stories about Shannon, which appeared in The Australian in early 2019. Upon questioning, Ms Keys was unable to clarify if she had approached the journalist first or if he had come to her for information.

The court then heard that at the time of the Royal Commission hearings in Sydney, Ms Keys met with a close colleague of Butler’s, Adele Ferguson, whose award-winning book, Banking Bad, includes detailed references to Ms Keys’ dealings with the CBA and tells of meeting Keys and helping her with her settlement, “effectively,” as Mr Holt put it, “open[ing] the doors for [Keys] with CBA […] along with a whole lot of other people.”

This creates an intriguing timeline. 

Was Ms Keys obliged to somehow prove her worth to the CBA before the doors could open and the bank honour their agreement to forgive her debt and provide her with what for many people would be considered a considerable windfall? 

If so, is it to be expected or accepted that a bank could conspire in this way, be it with or without the help of the media, to effectively sweep irritating advocacy groups and other meddlesome naysayers from their profit-at-the-expense-of-people paths?

On Tuesday, confronted with a direct question from Holt about why she had suddenly stopped communicating with Shannon and warned that her ongoing contention that she had not offered the bank information on their adversary was putting her at risk of perjuring herself, Ms Keys chose to claim privilege for the twenty-sixth time that morning. 

Although she must have been under enormous pressure and was, no doubt, exhausted after the day and a half of rigorous cross-examination, the witness’s apparent propensity for perjury could, in this looking-glass world, lead one to suspect Ms Keys has been promised wonders and/or wealth in exchange for weaving a very tangled web around her dealings with the CBA. 

With so many questions left unanswered and only a very slim chance that the CEO of Australia’s largest bank will just call to provide some answers, perhaps it is time that ASIC stopped spending publicly-funded fortunes on cock-eyed, incompetent investigations that lead to misguided $8500 fines and costly, embarrassing court cases and, with the support of better government funding and a good old flush out of its own, started looking at the persistent rot that justifiably undermines public confidence in the banking system and unjustifiably ruins hard-working people’s lives.

Sleeping with the Enemy: ASIC’s case against National Australia Bank’s adversary hits a sex snag

Lisa-Jane is a freelance writer and academic from Sydney. She is currently writing her doctoral thesis on narrative ethics at the University of Sydney and regularly pens articles, blog posts and opinion pieces for her clients.

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