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Steve Barrett spoke to A Current Affair about ATO tax fraud scoop amid arrests

A Current Affair is not usually one to miss a scoop but, on Thursday, Channel Nine's flagship current affairs show missed a whopper.

"I should probably sack myself," Grant Williams, ACA's executive producer, said. "But the premise of it seemed so unlikely."

Williams was referring to a conversation he had had with veteran television reporter Steve Barrett in January about a potentially explosive story about the son of a deputy tax commissioner being involved in a massive fraud.

And then, on Thursday morning, ACA had Barrett sitting in its office in Willoughby, on Sydney's north shore, while across town at the Central Local Court in Liverpool Street explosive documents were being tendered indicating that Barrett was allegedly involved in the blackmail of several syndicate members engaged in one of the country's most sensational white-collar frauds.

About 6am the previous day, the Australian Federal Police had executed a search warrant at the northern suburbs home of Barrett, a long-time crime reporter.

His mobile phone, computers and various documents were seized.


During the course of that day, 300 officers raided 28 properties and arrested nine people, including the son and daughter of the Michael Cranston, a Deputy Commissioner of the Australian Taxation Office.

As the story was breaking nationally, the Bar Rat, as he is better known, came into Channel Nine's headquarters offering to help with its coverage of the story.

Williams, who is not only the head of ACA but the deputy director of news and current affairs at the network, told Fairfax Media that Barrett had spoken to him, he thinks, on January 31, about a possibly sensational story.

"He did mention specifically that there was a major scandal in play involving a tax rort and that one of the main players was the son of the Deputy Commissioner of Taxation," Williams said.

Barrett asked if ACA would be interested.

"I said, 'Well, mate that's a pretty stupid question. Of course we would.'

"He said, 'Right, well I'll get back to you. I will see how I go.' "

Williams said that Barrett wasn't commissioned to do the story nor paid any retainer to work on it and that months passed and, despite talking about numerous other story ideas, Barrett never mentioned the yarn again.

Barrett, 59, has freelanced since leaving Channel Seven in May 2016. Before that, he worked as a crime reporter at The Australian and as a producer at Channel Nine's 60 Minutes.

On Monday or Tuesday this week, Barrett called Williams, wanting to see him, but Williams was not available until Thursday.

"He came to the office about 10.30am and was here for a few hours chatting away about everything he knew about it," Williams recalled.

Barrett appeared to be unconcerned about events and was taking it all in his stride.

"He told me straight away that they were even trying to say that he had blackmailed one of the blokes," Williams said.

"I thought those allegations were coming from the crooks. We were just worried about getting across the details of the story.

"He said, 'Remember when I rang you about this?' "

According to the court documents, on February 1, the day after the original conversation with Williams, the police were monitoring a meeting at the Martin Place office of tax lawyer Dev Menon.

At 9.33am, Barrett, Adam Cranston and Dan Rostankovski met Menon in his office at Clamenz Lawyers. Jay Onley and his cousin Simon Anquetil joined the meeting later.

"Police allege that, during this meeting, Rostankovski and Barrett attempted to blackmail the co-conspirators," a police statement, which was tendered in court, says.

The document goes on to say that Rostankovski told the co-conspirators that if they did not pay him $5 million that day, "Barrett would expose the conspiracy in the media."

By the meeting's end, the co-conspirators had agreed to Rostankovski's demand.

All of those at the meeting - with the notable exception of Barrett - have been charged over the $165 million tax fraud.

It wasn't until after lunch on Thursday, when Barrett had already left ACA's office, that news began to break of Barrett's alleged starring role in the drama.

Williams couldn't believe it. But by then it was too late. His scoop had vanished.

"Off to buy a new phone?" Williams lamented.