Kiwis chase playboy's empire frozen funds

MATT NIPPERT
Last updated 05:00 24/02/2013
Ahsan Ali Syed
REUTERS

ELUSIVE: Bahrain-based Ahsan Ali Syed had a penchant for an ostentatious lifestyle, based on an allegedly fraudulent loan business.

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New Zealand and Australian victims of an alleged conman who splashed millions on a private jet and a top-flight Spanish football club are finding recovery action heavy going despite successful freezing of accounts and assets in Switzerland and Bahrain.

Western Gulf Advisory, headed by Bahrain-based Indian Ahsan Ali Syed, made headlines in Australasia in 2010-11 with the promise of large low-interest refinancing loans to distressed businessmen.

But despite tens of millions of dollars being paid in upfront fees, the loans never arrived and putative borrowers have either slid into bankruptcy or angrily launched recovery action claiming the whole enterprise to be a fraud.

One-time Apprentice host Terry Serepisos paid upfront fees to WGA, and up until his bankruptcy in September 2011 insisted a US$100 million loan would satisfy all his creditors.

Gary McNabb, the managing director NZ Mint until he sold the bullion firm last year, also paid US$750,000 to WGA in 2011 and launched recovery action in Switzerland alleging the firm was a fraud.

McNabb was overseas and unable to respond to inquiries.

Lawyer and private investigator Mark van Leewarden, acting for McNabb, successfully froze WGA's Swiss accounts in May 2011 but said he had yet to generate any recoveries or even determine how much was available in the accounts.

"That's the problem with Switzerland, getting a quantum. They're very into their banking secrecy," he said.

New South Wales developer Keith Johnson won a US$3.6m judgment in late 2011 against WGA in the Bahrain Chamber For Dispute Resolution but, he told the Sunday Star-Times, the action - and a parallel criminal complaint - seemed stalled in the gulf state's opaque legal system.

"We've never had any money out of them. We've frozen their assets, but getting them to force sales is difficult," he said.

Johnson vowed to continue his pursuit.

Despite the slow progress in Switzerland and Bahrain, liquidators in Spain and Amsterdam are now mulling criminal charges over disastrous business enterprises that have left millions in debts.

Ali was for a time a playboy figure in the Spanish region of Santander after his early 2011 purchase of La Liga team Racing Santander, wearing polka dot cravats, flying into town on a private jet, and travelling with an entourage of a dozen in a fleet of five Mercedes.

He talked of opening his chequebook to sign David Beckham and making this small club a legitimate contender against league heavyweights rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona FC.

In an interview given to Vanity Fair's Spanish edition in 2011, shortly before the wheels came off his La Liga football club Racing Santander, Ali claimed he attracted criticism only because of his wealth:

"Why do you always attack us rich people? Why do you always attack me and people like [Bernie] Ecclestone and [Roman] Abramovich?"

Ali has not set foot in Spain since May, when accusations against WGA started to surface and players and coaches at the clubs complained of going unpaid. The club cycled through four general managers in the space of a year and after only winning four times during a 38-game season, were relegated and placed into bankruptcy.

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According to translated news reports, a report from Racing Santander's bankruptcy administrators held Ali - who refused to co-operate in their inquiries - responsible for €5m in losses from aggravated insolvency.

The public prosecutors office in Cantabria backed a call from administrators for Ali to be banned from being a director in Spain for five years and raised the possibility of criminal charges.

The Sunday Star-Times also understands top-flight PR firm Hill & Knowlton, hired to spruik the Racing Santander purchase globally, is also pursuing WGA over unpaid bill in excess of €500,000.

Ali's private jet, a Bombardier, was repossessed by Credit Suisse in late 2011.

In New Zealand, where Serepisos repeatedly told the High Court that bankruptcy action against him should be suspended as WGA would satisfy all creditors, Ali fended off criticism when he said in February 2011 his operation was international.

"We have recently taken an office in Amsterdam. We will open that office shortly, so we are expanding. I don't think Nigerian scamsters expand."

But in Amsterdam, liquidators have discovered a curious office containing only telephones and a bed, with no evidence of any business activity to justify €800,000 in creditors.

WGA signed agreements in 2010 to rent an office next to the mayor's residence for €450,000 per year. But in late 2011 the Dutch company was bankrupted, and liquidator Jeroen Oostenbrink of HVG has had his attempts to communicate with Ali ignored.

Oostenbrink said he considered conducting a passport trace on Ali so he could be arrested if he returned to Holland, but considered the move to be a waste of time as the WGA founder now appeared to be firmly ensconced in Bahrain.

The transnational nature of WGA's dubious activities is also taxing Ireland's NAMA, the state-controlled bad bank that assumed billions in bad debts made by the private sector to over-leveraged developers.

Late last year NAMA brought bankruptcy action against John McCabe, at one time the property-mad country's third-largest developer. The proceedings are based in large part on €4.9m said to have been "misappropriated or dissipated" when paid into WGA accounts in Bahrain.

Ali's track record before founding WGA appears modest. During an attempted purchase of Premier League team Blackburn Rovers in 2010, BBC investigations revealed a range of petty unpaid rent bills and council taxes in the United Kingdom dating back to 2004.

According to Indian media, Ali was a small-time lawyer before he left the country under a cloud in 2002. He is reportedly wanted by Hyderabad police over a small-time loan scam relating to upfront fees charged for undelivered loans.

WGA and Ali did not reply to inquiries, but recent filings with the Bahrain companies office indicate the putative financial tycoon has branched out into other businesses.

In the middle of last year records show he opened a first class restaurant and juice bar in Manama.

- Sunday Star Times

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