A Canberra fish merchant has become entangled in an elaborate $40 million international currency scam, losing nearly $100,000 in a bid to cash in.
The complex plan claimed to centre around the fortune of an ousted African ruler and involved trips to South Africa, the Netherlands and Spain on the promise of delivery of disguised US banknotes.
The strange affair, detailed in a recent ACT Supreme Court judgment, began when FishCo managing director John Fragopoulos responded to a fax to his seafood business in 2000 from a South African "Dr Phillips" which promised a 20 per cent - or $8 million - cut for help to bring the cash to Australia.
The fax referred to a "King Mobutu" trying to take his family and money out of South Africa.
Mr Fragopoulos, who has run the retail and wholesale FishCo seafood store at the Belconnen markets since 1997, ignored comments from his wife that the fax was "clearly a scam" and travelled to Johannesburg in September. There he met the doctor as part of a wider trip to explore fish exporting opportunities, the judgment said.
Dr Phillips told him the money would need to be washed with an expensive liquid - worth $US70,000 - which only the banks had access to, before it could be transported out of South Africa.
He was later told the bank notes were coated with a white powder which made them appear to be plain paper until washed.
After his return to Australia, Mr Fragopoulos, then in his mid-40s, was introduced to business consultant and former public servant Brendan Godfrey, then in his mid-50s. He gave Mr Godfrey the fax and shared the story of his South African trip.
Mr Fragopoulos said Mr Godfrey, who retired as a deputy secretary with the then Department of Administrative Services in 1997, said the request looked authentic and he wanted to investigate further. Mr Godfrey's evidence was he was always suspicious.
On a second trip to South Africa soon after, Mr Fragopoulos met Dr Phillips at his home. Dr Phillips opened a safe with "stacks of coated pieces of paper" and washed three of the papers, revealing what appeared to be $US100 banknotes.
Convinced of the plan, Mr Fragopoulos returned to South Africa for a third time and after another wash of notes by Dr Phillips, handed over the $US70,000 in return for a small bottle of liquid. Promised the fortune would be brought the next day, then washed and banked, Mr Fragopoulos was instead called at a hotel by someone who identified himself as a police detective. He was then told by Dr Phillips to take the bottle back to Australia. He flew home, but said when he got to Australia the apparently precious cargo was removed from his luggage.
Mr Fragopoulos said he and Mr Godfrey would have each received $US4 million if the venture delivered, and Mr Godfrey had agreed to help the seafood business financially if the deal failed. He said Mr Godfrey at one point looked into whether the Victorian mint could be a source of a replacement bottle, but further promises from Dr Phillips led the two Australians to Amsterdam at the end of February 2001.
There Mr Fragopoulos met a designated person from a security company at a hotel and more notes were washed, as Mr Godfrey waited outside. When a second bottle was found to contain solids, Mr Fragopoulos was told it would cost about $50,000 to return it to liquid.
Some of the small number of $US100 notes which had been washed were cashed by Mr Fragopoulos at banks in the following days, he said.
With money quickly transferred from Australia, Mr Fragopoulos handed over $US25,000 to have the bottle replaced. Mr Fragopoulos said about an hour after it was handed over it exploded, and the men were told the contents were ruined.
The final stop on the unsuccessful journey was to Madrid, where they had been advised on the phone by "Mobutu" they would collect his son and would receive a consignment of money. Mr Godfrey was later informed the "son", who both men met, was the child of former president Mobutu of Zaire. The corrupt president ruled for 31 years, but died in 1997.
Mr Godfrey returned to Australia early before notes from a safe were again washed, but Mr Fragopoulos said he followed Mr Godfrey's advice and returned to Canberra empty handed in March.
On his own evidence, Mr Godfrey provided about $26,000 to Mr Fragopoulos while the pair were in Amsterdam, and another $12,000 shortly before the fish merchant left Madrid. Other friends and family of Mr Fragopoulos had also provided him more than $160,000 during the time he pursued the scheme, Mrs Fragopoulos said.
After a falling out between the two men, the Supreme Court civil case was brought in 2007 by two companies controlled by Mr Godfrey and centred on disputes as to whether hundreds of thousands of dollars given by the companies over several years to Volanne Pty Ltd – of which Mr Fragopoulos was a director – had to be repaid, and what, if any, interest applied.
In his judgment, Master David Harper referred to the "extraordinary gullibility" of Mr Fragopoulos, who he said had been prepared at different times to say and do things "which he must have known were untrue or misleading and probably unlawful".
"Although his attempt to do so was unsuccessful, he tried to smuggle a bottle of extraordinarily expensive liquid into Australia, and I have no doubt that if the joint venture had been successful he would have brought in millions of dollars in United States currency without disclosing it to the authorities as required by law," he said.
Mr Harper said he could not avoid finding Mr Godfrey was taken in by the scam to some degree.
"This seems to me the only available finding consistent with the amount of money he put in in the early stages and his willingness to travel to Europe with Mr Fragopoulos," he said.
In September, Master Harper made final orders including entering judgment for one of Mr Godfrey's companies in the amount of $473,000.
Mr Fragopoulos and his wife have appealed the orders, challenging findings in relation to the loan arrangements and interest. The appeal has yet to be set down for hearing.
A lawyer for Mr Godfrey said her client would not comment as the matter was before the courts.
Mr Fragopoulos declined to comment and referred queries to his solicitor. His solicitor said as the matter was subject to appeal there would be no comment.
An ACT Policing spokeswoman said there had been no investigation into the matter and more information would be required for one to occur.