Commbank CEO Matt Comyn and two high-profile journalists have been dragged into ASIC’s case against bank victim advocate Geoff Shannon – along with NAB. Lisa-Jane Roberts reports startling revelations from a Southport court about dealings between big banks, the corporate regulators and the media.
The case of Crown v Shannon resumed yesterday after a 6-month adjournment was ordered to give the defence time to sift through approximately 16,000 documents that the corporate regulator ASIC, the complainant, had failed to disclose when the trial began last November.
Back on the witness stand at the Gold Coast court was Natasha Keys, the prosecution’s key witness, whose cross-examination by Saul Holt KC had been interrupted by the adjournment. Given the lengthy hiatus, the presiding magistrate asked that Ms Keys be re-sworn, and the cross-examination continued for the rest of the day.
The case, in which ASIC relies heavily on evidence provided by Keys, concerns allegations that Geoffrey Shannon was acting as a director of a business called Business and Personal Solutions (BAPS) while bankrupt. Shannon denies this, claiming instead that he was working as an advocate for the Unhappy Banking brand.
Keys, who was appointed the director of BAPS in October 2014 and remained in the position until her resignation in March 2015, has claimed that she consistently acted under instruction from Shannon and was, in her words, “more in a role of a personal assistant”, and that “even though [she] was a director of BAPS, [she] had no control over the direction of the company and didn’t make significant decisions affecting it”.
Holt again challenged this notion yesterday, tendering several of the 16,000 newly perused documents as evidence to back the defence’s claim that Keys was “hardly a PA or a secretary” but effectively operating as the director of BAPS herself, as she allegedly assured a client in an email, which Holt read to the court, stating “I run Business and Personal Solutions Proprietary Limited”.
The defence then asserted that she had either misled the client in question or lied under oath by claiming that it was Mr Shannon and not she who ran BAPS, asking Keys “which one was it?”; to which the witness replied, “I don’t know”.
The NAB executive and the “Hi Babe” email
The “Hi Babe” email reported on in December 2022 by MWM journalist Callum Foote reappeared in today’s session as the alleged romantic relationships in 2014 between Keys and Shannon and Keys and Simon Graystone, a senior executive of the National Australia Bank at the time, were explored by Holt in more detail in light of the 16,000 new documents.
The defence asked Keys, “Do you establish personal relationships with people and then use the information that you gain from them for your own personal advantage at some point in time?” She replied that she did not, but it was a question that would resonate later in the day when the line of questioning turned to her own dealings with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), one of Shannon’s adversaries in his advocacy work for Unhappy Banking.
Commbank pay-out to ASIC witness revealed
Keys came into dispute with the CBA in 2011 over a property when she, in her own words, “had difficulty meeting the repayments” on the attendant mortgage for a farm that she had purchased. The debt was settled seven years later in 2018, a period which, as put by the defence and corroborated by Keys, had “two kinds of phases to [it]”, the first in which the bank was trying to recover the debt and a second phase, which was initiated in 2016, when Keys lodged a statement of claim against the bank, alleging a breach of the Farm Debt Mediation Act.
The dispute was settled in 2018 with Keys, whose residual debt to the bank once they had sold her property was, according to her calculations as proffered to the court today, $165,000. The result of the settlement, as explained by Holt and confirmed by Keys, was that “the bank actually wrote that debt off and paid [her] 300-odd thousand dollars”.
Enter CBA boss Matt Comyn
Holt then went on to question Keys about whom at the CBA she had spoken to regarding her dispute, to which she replied that she had “met with Matt Comyn and his couple of offsiders” in June 2018.
The defence immediately sought and received confirmation from the witness that she was referring to Matt Comyn, the CEO of the CBA and that she had met with him in person to discuss her dispute. Keys went on to say that Comyn had telephoned her to make her the offer, which Holt again sought to confirm, asking, “Matt Comyn, the CEO of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, personally rings you with an offer of a few hundred thousand dollars; is that right?” “Yes,” replied Keys.
When asked if she had discussed Shannon with Comyn, in light of what Holt referred to as the big banks’ “negative view of the advocacy group, Unhappy Banking and Mr Shannon”, Keys replied in the negative, asserting that “there was no discussion at all about Geoff Shannon.”
Holt’s next question centred on the idea that if Keys were to provide the CBA with what he termed “dirt” on Shannon, it would, he suggested, strengthen her negotiating position in terms of her settlement.
While Keys denied having discussed Shannon with the bank or provided them with any documentation, she was unable to answer in the negative when Holt asked if she had “ever given documents about Geoff Shannon confidentially to anyone in order to damage him”.
Documents passed to Murdoch journalist
The witness replied that she had been asked for and provided documents to Ben Butler, a journalist with The Australian who, she said, “was doing a story” and “gathering information” on Shannon at the time.
Holt pointed out that this had happened in August 2018, approximately eight weeks after Keys’ dispute with the CBA had settled, asking if she thought it a “mere coincidence” and questioning her, without receiving an immediate reply, on what had led her to “start providing information to a journalist about [Shannon].”
“As early as , you were trying to use information on Geoff to further your settlement with the CBA,” continued the barrister for the defence, drawing the court’s attention to an email exchange between Keys and a solicitor in which she allegedly offered information on Shannon in exchange for “some speculative deal.”
Keys, after further questioning, admitted, “That’s obviously what I was doing.”
Nine Entertainment leaks
When asked if she had leaked information about Mr Shannon to other journalists, the witness replied, “there may have been Adele Ferguson […] but I don’t remember what I discussed with her.” Holt did not press her on her discussion with Ferguson, returning instead to her alleged provision of confidential information to Ben Butler and the “coincidence” of its timing with regard to the CBA settlement of Keys’ debts.
When asked again about her reasons for giving the journalist such information, Keys responded that she wanted to “put context to some of the issues that people were experiencing with Geoff’s conduct,” adding a moment later that it “probably was a bad decision, obviously.”
The cross-examination of Ms Keys continues today.
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.