2 Peter 2:3 And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you:

 

With God on his side

 


June 10, 2008

He was a devout local accountant who sometimes held prayer meetings with clients before persuading them to part with their money, most of which was never seen again, writes Tim Elliott.

For 20 years Blake Richards was a pillar of his community, the 10,000-strong fishing and tourist town of Ulladulla.

A devout Christian and former warden of Ulladulla's St Martin's Anglican church, Richards, 50, was a founding parent of the local Christian school and chairman of a youth charity foundation. A well-known accountant, he ran a thriving practice on Ulladulla's main street. Clients included local schools and churches, businesses and anyone with money to invest in his many and varied investment schemes.

"People trusted Blake, and I think he has betrayed that trust," says the Reverend Geoff Deutscher, the pastor of the Anglican parish of Ulladulla. "But he doesn't seem to have any sense of reality or comprehension of the pain that he has caused people. It's like he's in some fantasy world."

Richards's fortunes started to unravel in April, when the National Institute of Accountants released a statement that it was suspending him as a member, pending an investigation into allegations of fraud, poorly constructed investment advice and failure to tell clients they were investing in related entities of the accountant.

"This is the first time the board of directors has taken this action," said the institute's president, Greg Dennis. "It is not an action taken lightly. This is an extreme example where the … board felt it had no choice but to act to protect the public good."

The Herald made repeated attempts to discuss the allegations with Richards but was unable to do so.

News of his suspension came as no surprise to members of St Martin's Anglican Church, where Richards worshipped. He was known for his generous contributions to the plate and for enthusiastically spruiking his various businesses, particularly Longbeach Lifestyle, a real estate development company that used money borrowed from parishioners to buy coastal plots near Batemans Bay.

"Blake was offering 35 per cent returns on Longbeach, telling members of the congregation that the returns would be so good that they could give 5 per cent back to the church as a tithe," Deutscher says.

Leaving St Martin's in 2005 ("Blake's firm was auditing our accounts," Deutscher says, "but we weren't happy with how they were doing it"), Richards moved onto St Mark's at Sussex Inlet, and briefly made his presence felt at Highway Christian Church, in Ulladulla, where he continued to sell Longbeach. (Richards now attends Harbour Life Community Church, a small Pentecostal church in Ulladulla.)

Longbeach ultimately attracted 23 investors, many of them elderly churchgoers, all of whom lost their money when the company collapsed in July 2005, owing creditors $3 million.

The Herald has spoken to two couples who lost $115,000 and $460,000 respectively, and a woman, Robin Couson, who together with her former partner, lost $170,000. "Blake promised us our money back plus 50 per cent interest at the end of a 12-month period," says Couson, who works for Australia Post in Ulladulla. "We had to borrow that money from the bank, and when Longbeach went bust we had to sell our house to pay the bank back."

Longbeach was just one of many such schemes that have since been linked to Richards, and which some locals claim have sucked millions of dollars from the town. "Blake's basic model was to gain people's confidence as a Christian and as an accountant," says Catherine Smith, a mortgage broker in Canberra who worked for Richards in 2004. "He would even hold prayer meetings in the office of Richards Corporate Consulting. He would then convince them to invest in his businesses, usually with a minimum subscription of around $100,000, which would never be seen again."

One such business was Global Tech Environmental, a waste-to-energy company that Richards started in August 2005. Richards had no technical expertise in waste water issues, but claimed to have come across new plasma technology in China that turned waste water to fuel. He approached Pat Quinn, an expert in waste water with 20 years' experience in Australia and Asia, who signed on as a co-director.

Richards set up an office in Sydney, renting space above the Silverwater centre of Christian City Church, a fast-growing Pentecostal congregation renowned for its emphasis on "prosperity gospel". He then hired Tony Gattari, a Christian City Church pastor, to help raise capital, and began approaching his own accountancy clients.

"In March 2005 Blake had called me from his yacht in Hayman Island," says Ted Johnson, a builder in Sussex Inlet who had been a client of Richards for nine years. "He said, 'Mate, I've got this fantastic investment called Ingetech, a water recycling company, but you'd better put your money in now because the shares are going to double in a week.' So I put in $100,000."

A year later Johnson asked what had happened to Ingetech, and Richards told him he had changed his money over to Global Tech Environmental. "Whenever I mentioned it, Blake said that my money was going great guns and I'd make a fortune." But as another year passed and with little to show for his investment, Johnson became suspicious. "So I called Global Tech Environmental, and they said they'd never heard of me."

When Johnson confronted Richards and demanded his money back, "he looked me in the eye and said, 'I put it into Longbeach'." (Global Tech Environmental continues to operate, but no longer has any association with Richards.)

"I have since learned," Pat Quinn says, "that Richards used our company name to solicit money from at least some people I know in Queensland and other areas, to invest in us, [but] that their money never got to us. Where it went nobody knows."

Johnson says he got off relatively lightly. "There's a woman in Nowra who put in $700,000."

Other investors included the pastor of a Pentecostal outreach church in western Sydney who met Richards "through church connections" and put in more than $500,000. "Blake just said I could make a lot of money in a short time," he said.

Richards's actions have caused considerable distress in Ulladulla, a town where, says Neil Harrison, a local, "everyone knows everyone else's business". In 2003 Richards recommended Harrison invest $158,000 from his superannuation into Big Kids Toys, a spare parts shop of which Richards was a director and a shareholder; Harrison lost his money when Big Kids Toys went into liquidation in March last year owing $2.2 million.

blake_fake_666_car.jpg (49258 bytes)Harrison now operates a "Victims of Blake Richards" website and achieved notoriety for driving around in his Mitsubishi Verada with the words "666 Blake is a Fake" on the side.

"I'd take it down to the beach," Harrison says, "or just park it in front of Blake's office."

One local said: "No one is happy with what has happened, especially those in the church."

Another said Blake had "utilised" not only the trust that people had in him as a church member and accountant, but "the trust that locals have in his mum and dad".

Richards's mother Ruth, a past president of the Milton Country Women's Association, has been a committee member of 17 local community groups since moving to the area in 1961. This year she was nominated for a Shoalhaven City Council Australia Day Award. "She's done a lot for the town," one woman said.

So where did all the money go? "Ask Blake," Harrison says. Richards drives a blue 1975 Rover; he and his wife, Lisa, live in a weatherboard house on the outskirts of town.

"Blake and Lisa are not rich themselves," says Pastor Karl Kramer, of Harbour Life Community Church, where Richards worships. "We stand by him. People invest money in all kinds of things, and sometimes they get hurt. That's part of life."

However, about one thing everyone agrees: Richards has charm. "He exudes sincerity," says Robert Elliott of Hall Chadwick, who wound up Longbeach. "He would front a meeting of 30 or 40 creditors, and when he'd walk in they'd want to kill him. You'd think someone would throw a punch. But by the end they were eating out of his hand."

But one incident last year may have exhausted whatever civic credit Richards had left. In May 2007 an elderly client of Richards, Florence Rosemary Broadhurst, who had dementia, died in in a local nursing home. Some time after the funeral it emerged that Richards, who had Broadhurst's power of attorney, had taken out a loan for $270,000 on her behalf from a man called Gary Oakes. Oakes is a estate agent in Huskisson, near Jervis Bay, and, at the time of the loan was a client of Richards's accountancy firm. As security over the loan, Richards gave Oakes a caveat over Broadhurst's house. (This caveat is now being disputed by Broadhurst's relatives.)

Oakes says Richards instructed him to place the money straight into the account of Global Tech Environmental because, Oakes says, "Blake said that's where Mrs Broadhurst wanted to invest the money."

On May 31 Richards attended Broadhurst's funeral, at Sandridge Cemetery, overlooking Mollymook Beach. "He also came for the wake to my house in Milton," says Ellen Mison, who nursed Broadhurst for the last five years of her life. "Some nerve he's got. He stood in my living room, and had afternoon tea with us."

Oakes wants to recover his money, but says it will not be simple. "Global Tech say it's in the form of a loan to Broadhurst. The whole thing is a disaster. Now I just want to find Blake, but he's a hard man to pin down."

Either way, Oakes could be waiting some time for his money. Last month the Deputy Commissioner of Taxation lodged an action against Richards in the NSW Supreme Court, thought to be for about $1.6 million.

Courtesy Sydney Morning Herald

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