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Gunns bosses may face class action

FORMER Tasmanian premier Robin Gray and other directors of forestry group Gunns may become additional targets of a $75 million shareholder class action against the company following its collapse into administration yesterday.

Gunns' directors yesterday appointed Ian Carson, Daniel Bryant and Craig Crosbie of PPB as administrators after a syndicate of banks owed $560 million refused to continue funding the deeply unprofitable company, which had been buffeted by low woodchip prices and the high dollar.

The banking syndicate, led by the ANZ, has moved to protect its position by appointing Mark Korda and Bryan Webster of KordaMentha as receivers.

The fall into administration of the once-dominant forestry group makes more precarious its controversial $2 billion Bell Bay pulp mill project, already under a cloud after the company said in August it was no longer certain to go ahead.

It also means shareholders in a class action brought against the company by law firm Maurice Blackburn face the prospect of winning the lawsuit but being unable to recover damages.

In the Federal Court lawsuit, shareholders seeking between $35 million and $75 million allege Gunns sat on negative financial information for months in the lead-up to a shock 98 per cent profit plunge unveiled in February 2010.


Maurice Blackburn principal Rebecca Gilsenan, who is running the class action, said the firm would consult with clients and funder IMF about adding company directors and officers as defendants.

''They've got the potential to sue directors and officers for the same conduct,'' she said.

''And there's also the possibility of [directors'] insurance.''

As of December 31, 2009, the directors of Gunns were Mr Gray, chairman John Gay, Chris Newman, Richard Millar, David Simmons and Paul Teisseire.

Mr Newman is now chairman and Mr Simmons and Mr Millar remain on the board. In the class action, it is alleged Gunns knew its results for the six months to the end of 2009 would be dismal as early as August 31 that year.

It is alleged that instead of warning the market of the impending profit slump, Gunns management instead said prices for woodchips were improving and it had hit the ''bottom of the cycle''.

Ms Gilsenan said Maurice Blackburn was also closely watching the criminal case brought against Mr Gay, whom the corporate watchdog has charged with insider trading over sales of Gunns shares in

December 2009. ''Obviously there would be a considerable overlap between the issues in the Gay case and the class action,'' she said.

IMF investment manager Simon Dluzniak said it was conceivable Gunns could trade out of administration ''but it seems unlikely''.

''In the event that they don't, IMF will look at other courses of recourse including directors' and officers' insurance,'' he said.

Gunns' most recent annual report, for 2011, shows the company held professional liability insurance for Mr Gray, Mr Newman, Mr Millar, Mr Simmons, and Mr Teisseire, valid until July this year.

As of June 30, $560 million was owed to a banking syndicate made up of ANZ, Mizuho, China Construction Bank, Nordea Bank Finland, Sumitomo Mitsui, Norddeutsche Landesbank, BOS International, Mega International Commercial Bank, United Overseas Bank and Bank of Finland.

As lead banker, ANZ is believed to have the greatest exposure but a spokesman declined to say how much Gunns owed the bank.

However, ANZ is unlikely to be forced to set aside additional money to cover the Gunns loan, because it has been building up provisions against it.

As late as August 31, when it filed its annual return, Gunns directors were insisting the company was solvent, highlighting the need for ''ongoing lender support'' to ''stabilise the company's operations'', but saying it was ''appropriate'' to consider the company a going concern.

The company declared a loss of $903 million as it slashed the value of its assets, including cutting $796 million from the book value of the Bell Bay project.