There's no more monkeying around at Australia Zoo.
An official for the animal conservation—which was set up by the late Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin and is currently run by his widow, Terri—has acknowledged that it fell victim to "a highly sophisticated case of deception" that led to its current implication in a budding tax-evasion scandal.
The case has been big news Down Under for several months, with debt collector Alyssa Treasury Services filing separate lawsuits last month against Australia Zoo and Terri Irwin, for roughly $2.3 million and $55,000, respectively, for outstanding debts owed to a handful of overseas banks and companies stemming from a series of less than legitimate investments made, allegedly in an effort to avoid paying taxes.
At the time, both denied any knowing involvement in the questionable investments, though now say that they did enter into "a series of highly professional proposals" with offshore businesses that had ties to Australia's former tax commissioner Nick Petroulias, who in December was slapped with bribery and corruption charges.
Both Irwin and Frank Muscillo, the zoo's general manager and, handily, Steve Irwin's brother-in-law, said Petroulias had passed himself off as a consultant on their investments and convinced them as to their legitimacy.
Broadly aware of the alleged shortcomings in Petroulias' character, Muscillo said that each time the zoo questioned either the tax plan's legitimacy or Petroulias' involvement, "assurances were provided to them that he would be cleared of any allegations."
The deals began to fall apart early last year, when a zoo accountant discovered that all of the investments, made through Petroulias' Singapore-based firm HQZ Argentum, were done through unlicensed and unregistered companies.
In the wake of the discovery, court documents show that the company warned the zoo it could face a major tax audit if it pulled out of the deals, saying it would be unable to defend the false claims.
"Clearly we wish we had not dealt with these organizations and these people," Muscillo said, adding that they were speaking out now to flag up more possible deception, saying, "as a high-profile organization, we want to warn other Australians."
"This situation has cost us a lot. Not just in monetary terms, but in respect of our reputation."
In the wake of the allegations first coming to light, Bob Irwin, Steve's father, resigned from his position at the zoo, amid rumors of a rift with Terri.
All the deals, mostly brokered through a Singapore-based company, were initiated in 2005 but not formally entered into until June 2006, three months before Steve Irwin's death. It's unclear if the late Croc Hunter was aware of the deals as he typically left the financial side of the business up to his wife; however, Terri Irwin and Muscillo were the documents' only signatories.
Irwin and the zoo are expected to file their defense in Australian court next week.