An office equipment leasing company is at the centre of one of Australia’s biggest frauds, currently being investigated by the police over hundreds of suspected fictitious leasing contracts. Katherine Muir reports.
Forum Finance is accused of swindling half a billion Australian dollars from one of the country’s biggest banks as well as from the local branches of two international lenders, and the man accused of masterminding the scam has fled the country, so far evading the liquidators and an arrest warrant.
The company was founded by Bill Papas (full name Basile Papadimitriou), a Sydney photocopier salesman, who had moved from work as a truck driver to a job in a small printer-leasing company in the 1990s. Papas set up Forum in 2011, which would come to dominate the Australian office equipment leasing market with big clients that included some of the country’s biggest supermarket chains as well as shopping malls, such as Westfield owner, the Scentre Group.
It was after Forum signed a deal with Australia’s third-biggest lender by market cap, the high street bank Westpac in 2017, that the company’s fortunes really began to grow. The deal they struck gave Forum access to some of the bank’s big clients to provide office equipment and, crucially, also to arrange the financing and paperwork for the leasing deals.
One former salesman for Forum, Stuart Burnett, who has spoken to the media said that the Hollywood film ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ was often referenced by staff as an inspiration and described the atmosphere at Forum to current affairs show 60 Minutes Australia as: “It’s a ruthless industry and they were really ruthless. They hired people who were, and they went for it.”
According to Burnett, he began to feel uncomfortable about some of the sales tactics that the company used. He told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper that “You’ll sign someone up to a five-year contract; three years in, they’re paying twice as much.”
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At some point Forum appears to have started to scam its lenders, inflating the requirements of its clients for office machinery as well as taking out loans on those clients’ behalf with faked contracts with signatures forged on the papers, according to the court-appointed liquidator Jason Ireland of McGrathNicol, who told 60 Minutes “As a real business, Forum did two main things; it provided photocopiers and other office equipment to businesses and also then provided food digester waste machines to largely hospitality-based businesses.
Forum would then put together the documentation saying that the customer wanted the machine, saying that the customer would pay a monthly fee for them and then they would take those documents to banks and banks would fund the purchase of the machine. Now, unfortunately, what it looks like is the vast, vast majority of those contracts were not real. And this was part of the well-executed nature of the fraud – the customer was real, the customer was a well-known company in many cases, but the contracts and their want for the machines, was not real.”
Repayments on the dodgy loans were apparently made like clockwork with not a single one ever missed, according to 60 Minutes, meaning that no red flags were raised with any of the lenders.
According to Ireland the amounts being borrowed “seemed to start in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and then by the end of it was in the millions of dollars in each contract, so it got progressively bigger.”
Ireland says that the money borrowed was used to prop up the business to pay the operating costs as well as to fund the lifestyle of Papas and his business partner. Papas owned luxury properties, racing cars, yachts, race horses as well as a professional football club in Greece, Xanthi FC. The business also set up an associated business, the UK-registered Iugis, an environmental waste disposal business, that supplied its machines to the premier league football club Liverpool as a sponsorship deal in 2020.
Things began to unravel for Forum and Papas in May last year almost by accident when one of Forum’s clients, a heavy machinery supplier called WesTrac, applied for its loan facility with Westpac Bank to be expanded. And after being told that their current loan from the bank amounted to $9.7m the company began to question the figures, as their records showed they had only borrowed $1.6m to fund a printer/photocopier, as reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (the ABC).
Further investigation showed that a series of contracts apparently signed by WesTrac were all allegedly forged, and in June last year Papas was summoned to WesTrac’s HQ in West Australia’s state capital, Perth, to explain the discrepancy, however at the last minute it was announced he wouldn’t make it due to a health scare, according to a report in the Australian Financial Review newspaper.
Westpac Bank meanwhile had begun an urgent examination into the other contracts that had come through Forum discovering that its losses amounted to $290m. The bank quickly filed a lawsuit in Australia’s Federal Court against Forum to try and recover as much money as possible and reported the company to the police, according to the ABC. Sumitomo and Société Générale also filed lawsuits, having lost $100m and $9m respectively.
Justice Michael Lee, who presided over the court proceedings, described Forum’s dealings as a “long-running, calculated and elaborate fraud that would rank high in the catalogue of corporate misfeasance.”
Papas fled to Greece before Westpac launched its legal action and was last spotted by 60 Minutes who tracked him down living in the wealthy Athens suburb of Glyfada.
He eventually released a statement through his lawyer saying: “The reporting and opinions publicly advanced about Forum and other entities have been formulated without the benefit of a contradictor. This is because I have been deprived of the opportunity to fund any meaningful engagement with federal proceedings commenced by a well-resourced financial institution. I do intend to address the matters raised at an appropriate time but for now, my primary focus is my health.”
Papas’s barrister told the court that he was unable to return to Australia at that time as he had contracted Covid and could not afford the flight home. A later affidavit stated that the businessman was suffering from “extreme anxiety and panic attacks,” as a result of being sued, according to media reports.
Further questions have been asked about how Papas was able to leave Australia in June 2021, when the country had strict Covid border controls that banned overseas travel except in special circumstances, according to the Australian Financial Review.
McGrathNicol’s report into financial dealings at the company focused on the period between 2018 to 2021, but also identified evidence that the fraudulent dealings went back as far as 2013 at least.
When asked by 60 Minutes where the money was, Ireland said “The shortfall is hundreds of millions and that’s because the money is not sitting anywhere.
“A large amount – in the hundreds of millions of dollars – went into the business, paying the operating cost of the business. Maybe $50 million into properties and then other lifestyle assets: cars, yachts, jet skis, racing cars.
“Without the fraudulent loans the business was completely insolvent and so when the alleged fraud was uncovered and those funds stopped, the rest of the business collapsed.”
We tried contacting Bill Papas for comment for this story but at the time of going to press we had not heard back from him.
Companies stung by Australia’s Forum Finance include:
Westpac Bank – $294m
Sumitomo Bank – $100m
Société Générale – $9m
Humm Group (fintech company) – aprox $12m
Thorn Group (financial services company) – aprox $2.2m
Veolia Environmental Services
Scentre Shopping Centre Management (Westfield)
Coles (supermarket chain)
Woolworths (supermarket chain – unrelated to FW Woolworths in the UK and elsewhere)