CONTROVERSIAL Maitland accountant Michael Unicomb has pleaded guilty to using an elderly client to secure a $1.16 million bank loan and divert funds to himself and an associate.
Unicomb, of East Maitland's Michael Unicomb and Associates, pleaded guilty in Newcastle District Court on Monday to dishonestly gaining a financial advantage by submitting false information to Westpac Bank.
Unicomb was a trusted advisor of self-funded retiree David Dixon, of Branxton, for six years to 2014. Mr Dixon, who died in 2019, was introduced to Unicomb in 2008 after he sold a property in Western Sydney for $2.3 million and was looking for someone to manage his investment portfolio.
The retired draftsman retained Unicomb and was advised to purchase a 25-acre property in the Hunter Valley, at Lovedale, for $900,000, that Mr Dixon understood would eventually be developed into a tourist facility with up to 30 cabins.
According to the agreed statement of facts, Unicomb then advised Mr Dixon on a series of complicated changes to the ownership of the site - that involved a unit trust - which resulted in his wife, Pamela Unicomb, becoming a 50 per cent stakeholder in the site.
In September 2010, Unicomb advised Mr Dixon to expect delays in a "draft development application" for the property that he claimed was being prepared to increase the number of planned cabins from 15 to 30.
He then told Mr Dixon he could arrange a personal loan with Westpac to fund the cabin development.
Unicomb completed an application form for the $1.16 million loan, indicating the money would be used for the "purchase of the Lovedale property as a residence for Mr Dixon".
He also falsely told Westpac that Mr Dixon was working full-time as a senior engineer with ICA Group Lifestyle earning $285,200 a year, received $7083 from trust distributions each month, had $783,200 in super and owned 30 stud Arabian ponies valued at $250,000.
"The applicant represented that Dixon was paying rent at the Lovedale property having paid a deposit of $180,000 towards the purchase of the property which was valued at $1.8 million, which was not true...," an agreed statement of facts reads.
"Unicomb also submitted three forged payslips from Dixon from the ICA Group ... which he had instructed Albert Graves, an associate of his, to create."
The loan was drawn down in December 2010 and $141,535 was transferred to a company owned by Unicomb and his wife called Greenhills Securities. A further $120,000 was paid to ICA (South Australia) and $120,000 to Vangory Holdings, companies operated by Gregory Huxley, an associate of Unicomb's.
In police interviews, Unicomb said ICA was involved in the development of the Lovedale property. According to Westpac, it is now owed $1.8 million.
Police intercepts of phone conversations between Unicomb and Mr Huxley in April 2017, record the pair discussing the Westpac loan.
"I'd say I know of no payslips," Unicomb said. "And if they say, 'Well what about these payslips?' [laughs] 'First time I've seen them.'"
In response Mr Huxley said: "...the comment I think you can make, as an honest comment, I think is this - that there was a joint venture incentive. Dixon was to be paid in relation to that joint venture."
Unicomb pleaded not guilty to three charges and prosecutor Jane Krippner said the Department of Public Prosecutions agreed to accept a single guilty verdict.
Unicomb was represented by solicitor Mark Ramsland and barrister Christopher Watson.
The three charges he pleaded not guilty to were that he represented to Mr Dixon in November 2009 that it was in his interest to sell the property for $1.4 million to Loire Consulting Pty Ltd for no consideration, that he appropriated the title of the property to benefit himself, executed a mortgage over the property and advanced funds to himself and that in March 2010 he submitted false information in a loan application for Loire Consulting to Eclipse Prudent Mortgages, with Mr Dixon as guarantor, to gain funds from the loan.
Unicomb's bail was continued and the matter adjourned to June for sentence before Judge Roy Ellis.
He declined to comment as he left court.
In 2010, the Newcastle Herald reported that Unicomb was trying to stave off bankruptcy, hoping creditors owed more than $40 million would accept less than one cent in the dollar.
In a letter to creditors, insolvency firm McLeod and Associates listed 37 unsecured creditors allegedly owed nearly $45 million.
The letter stated that if creditors agreed to Mr Unicomb's proposed "personal insolvency agreement" a "third party", Mr Dixon, would provide $50,000 to be divided among creditors.
Mr Dixon was listed in the letter as an unsecured creditor, owed about $1 million.
Unicomb was trying to avoid being forced into bankruptcy so he could continue practising as an accountant.
Creditors who have spoke to the Newcastle Herald in 2010 complained that the amounts owed to them appeared to have been understated, possibly affecting their voting rights.
Unicomb listed family members and business associates among his creditors.
In 2008, the Newcastle Herald reported that an elderly Hunter dairy farming couple who used Unicomb as their accountant had been saved from losing their property and life savings by a NSW Supreme Court decision.
Judge Hamilton stated in a written decision that Dallas and Juliet Clarke, of Wallalong, had been led or pressured by Unicomb "into entering, for his own purposes, into two disadvantageous transactions" totalling more than $2 million with financiers.
The judge set aside mortgages and guarantees entered by the couple, declaring that Unicomb, "a long-standing and trusted adviser and personal friend", had abused the couple's trust.
A month later, the Herald reported on a different court matter where a judge accused Unicomb of abusing the trust of another client and leading them into bad transactions for his own purposes.
Suzanne Cairns, 47, of Gillieston Heights, told the Supreme Court her husband, Peter, had been unable to exercise normal judgement during his final months because of intense pain and strong medication he was taking for his terminal bowel cancer.
Three months before his death in March 2005 from complications related to his cancer, Mr Cairns borrowed $200,000 from a high-interest lender and authorised payment of funds to Unicomb's trust account.
The three-month loan from finance company Galadriel Lothlorien was not repaid in time and reverted to punitive interest rates.
Mrs Cairns said she had to sell properties to raise $377,000 to pay out the loan in 2006.
Unicomb swore an affidavit stating that the $200,000 Mr Cairns borrowed just before his death went to his long-time friend and business partner Warren Turner in an attempt to secure a property in South Australia.
But Mr Turner told The Herald at the time he did not receive the money, although he agreed it was used for the South Australian property venture. The funds represented Unicomb's share of the investment, Mr Turner said.
IN THE NEWS:
- PODCAST: Toohey's News
- Two dogs 'severely emaciated', woman convicted
- Knights buckle under the pressure to lose another 'should win' game at home
- Brisbane sent into snap coronavirus lockdown ahead of Easter
- Newcastle's best surfers: the unforgettable Matt Hoy, son of Brian, father of Tex
- Seitan becomes a food trend in the plant-based, vegan and meat-free eating movement
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content: