ONE Nation WA Senator Rod Culleton has hit back at his critics in the face of mounting legal challenges and manoeuvres aimed at forcing his exit from federal parliament.
Mr Culleton spoke to Fairfax Agricultural Media as news broke yesterday that former associate Bruce Bell had lodged a new petition in the High Court seeking to test the Senator’s eligibility for federal parliament, in the Court of Disputed Returns.
A liquidator was also appointed one of Mr Culleton’s companies DEQMO Pty Ltd yesterday by the NSW Supreme Court, while reports have also surfaced showing he and his wife now face a judgement order to pay a long-standing damages claim for $200,000.
However, the obstinate former farmer from Williams in south-east WA remains defiant of the external pressures and is confident of repaying all creditors and fending-off various legal challenges.
Mr Bell and another former business associate of Mr Culleton’s Frank Bertola are claiming the One Nation Senator was ineligible for election, at the time of signing his nomination form for the July 2 poll.
Mr Bertola told Fairfax Agricultural Media the petition lodged by Mr Bell alleges Mr Culleton was convicted and awaiting sentencing for a crime that carried a penalty exceeding 12 months jail time which made him ineligible, according to section 44 of the constitution.
Mr Culleton recently had that conviction annulled in the Armidale Court, relating to the theft of a $7.50 key during an altercation with a tow truck driver in a vehicle repossession attempt at Guyra, connected to his horse feed business.
A mention hearing has been set-down for September 12 and he says any decision to proceed will depend on whether the State of NSW wants to spend about $100,000 in taxpayer’s money, to commence legal action over a $7.50 key.
But Mr Bertola said section 44 was “quite clear” while the court petition also challenged Mr Culleton’s eligibility based on section 45 concerning bankruptcy and questioned the merits of section 46 which covers financial penalties for time spent sitting in parliament, once proven ineligible.
“When he (Mr Culleton) signed the declaration he was ineligible and there’s no arguing with the constitution,” he said.
Mr Bertola said there’d been preliminary communication with the court about the petition’s formatting but its legal content appeared acceptable and they would now wait for a final sealed document, from the registry.
He said according to election rules, they had 40 days to raise an objection in the Court of Disputed Returns and 14 days had already passed since the poll was declared.
Mr Bertola said he and Mr Bell hadn’t paid any legal costs at this point in time to pursue the challenge and “we’re not funded in any way”.
He said a fee could be charged once the court accepted the application but Mr Bell could also apply for an exemption, due to having a pension/health care card.
Mr Bertola said as creditors, he and Mr Bell both had an interest in Mr Culleton’s affairs but stressed they were no longer friends or business associates.
Mr Culleton said he hadn’t received official notification regarding any formal application to the Court of Disputed Returns but “heard a whiff” about the action, yesterday morning.
“That’s a process that everyone has available to them,” he said.
“I’ve been elected - I am a Senator – and if someone wants to dispute that, that is their right as an Australian.
“They are the rules and I’m not here to break the rules – I’ve never broken rules.”
Mr Bertola lived with Mr Culleton for about three months and formed a business relationship and friendship, after sharing common issues with the ANZ Bank, following the foreclosure of his grain and sheep farm at Bremer Bay, after 43-years.
But earlier this month, he was imprisoned for breaching a restraining order taken out by Mr Culleton’s wife against him and Mr Bell.
Mr Bertola and Mr Bell say their campaign to challenge Mr Culleton’s eligibility to sit in federal parliament is called, “Cull the Rodney”.
But Mr Culleton said his one-time friends had both “taken the wrong track”.
“Francis Bertola was never, ever a business partner of mine,” he said.
“He stood in as a surrogate director (of DEQMO) but never in effect had control of that company which has been shut down for over two years as it had the lease on the rural property, at Williams.
“He’s a purported creditor so that’s all nonsense.”
Mr Culleton said he was also aware of yesterday’s court ruling on the DEQMO liquidation that, “apparently was done by a registrar”.
“If that is the case and it appears to be the case, it may be through a technicality of a signature and obviously if there’s an appeal we’ll be doing that,” he said.
Mr Culleton said a deed of company arrangement, which was shown in court documents, offered to repay any company creditors 100 cents in the dollar and he’d also placed a sum of money into the creditors account.
He attributed issues with DEQMO to the “actions” of the ANZ Bank and its acquisition of the Landmark rural loans in 2009 which also led to the foreclosure of his family farm at Williams in 2013.
“I’ll fund this and I’m happy to fund it and to keep on funding it because it’s the right thing that the proper creditors get paid,” he said.
“We don’t go into business to not come out paying our bills.
“If there are certain creditors that need to be paid they will be paid.
“I could easily strike a deal on the side and pay them which is still open however I don’t want to see the culprits get away with what’s happened.”
Senator Culleton said he had no personal guarantees with DEQMO and bankruptcy was “not going to happen” and that many people had “misconceptions” around the way corporations operated.
“I’ve never been insolvent, am not insolvent and never will be insolvent,” he said.
“My companies have been good – one has watched out for the other and it’s a bit like a family.
“We had four companies and one looks out for the other one and we’ve got one that’s still going gangbusters; otherwise how do I afford all my legal fees?
“I’ve used every tool in the tool box and even though there’s been a sniff, I’ve never been bankrupt.”
Mr Culleton also attributes the $200,000 claim by former Wesfarmers director Dick Lester, for unpaid rent linked to a $13.2 million property deal in 2009 to expand his farm at Williams, to his issues with the ANZ Bank.
He denied reports this week that he’d been served papers relating to Mr Lester’s claim while in custody due to an outstanding arrest warrant, as part of the process for the annulment hearing in the Armidale Court, over the $7.50 key.
“The only thing I got served in Armidale was a lamington and a croissant - that’s it,” he said.
“There was nothing served on me personally at all.”
Mr Culleton said he held ongoing discussion with Mr Lester in 2009 about the property purchase - but on December 21 that year a notice was sent to all growers about the ANZ’s takeover of the Landmark rural loans book and “a new working relationship”.
“That’s when all of the bank managers disappeared, the accounts all fell over, you could not operate the accounts and the whole thing turned to shit, so we didn’t go ahead with Lesters,” he said.
“I don’t know what part of the financial approval he didn’t understand but we had no bank – and he sued us – I didn’t sue him.”
Mr Culleton said the ANZ Bank was not a creditor of any of his companies, “never has been, never will be and legally can never be” despite claiming to be the largest aggregate creditor.
“I was one of the only farmers who never signed over to ANZ’s new terms and conditions,” he said.
“I’m not an ANZ Bank customer and ANZ has never won in court and won against the Culletons or his companies; this is the whole point.
“With DEQMO what I’ve done is put an administrator in there - I’m paying for it, so he can go in and clean up all the crap.
“I’m sending it in as the first aid team to clean up the purported carnage that the ANZ Bank has left behind.”
Mr Culleton said the creditors of DEQMO were all standing behind him.
“These are all long-standing people I’ve done business with for 20 years,” he said.
“There is no pressure from them, they are fine, and know I’ll come through and I am through anyway.
“It’s just a matter of getting all my ducks in a row and taking each fight as I can and so far I’ve been able to bat them all off.
“But in some cases I’ve had to act like the wounded female duck and go off like with a busted wing, so the fox keeps away from the chicks and that’s why some of these litigations have taken their time to come around but it’s all about strategy and how I best make the fight.
“You don’t always go out in front; you have to look at how to win a war and some days you have to use your own expertise and nous and gut feelings to show how you’re going to fight the fight.”
Mr Culleton said issues with the ANZ Bank had also impacted operations for the vertically integrated horse-feed business model that he invented, the Australian Keg Company, which is reportedly owed $4.6m by DEQMO.
He said he’d been taken to court by patent trolls that had “ganged up” on litigation over the intellectual property for his specialised horse feed invention which had cost $1m to defend.
“The case was argued over the definition of ‘through’ and we won that and we still have a court order that we will execute in due course and that’s why there’s no problem with my insolvency,” he said.
“More importantly, I want to keep farmers on their farms.
“It’s been a collateral attack from all sides but the best way I explain it is like a scene from that Monty Python movie, ‘it’s just a flesh wound’.
“And I have to look at the good side of all this because here I am sitting as a Senator in the federal parliament to represent the Australian people.
“If anyone looks at what’s in the newspapers they can see right through all the people who are trying to pull me away from the poker table.
“That will not happen.
“I will represent the Australian people and I will be very good for Western Australia and they could not have a more case hardened, galvanized, tungsten-tipped representative in the Senate to represent their State.”
Mr Culleton said his equine feed business was highly innovative and profitable.
“We grew it, we manufactured it, we owned the packing company, we owned the big logistics company and we knew who the end user customer was – the best model you could have for agriculture,” he said.
“It was a concept that we called the equine feed delivery system – we strived very much on service and we had 17 trucks on the road – it was a massive business.
“We then expanded into NZ and signed licence agreements and at the time we were also with Dodson and Horrell in the UK selling the concept to go into the Queens’s stables and also into the army.
“We were also making inroads into Dubai and using big trainers that come out of South Africa and the Sultan of Brunei so we were very well placed, and also sending feed up into Kuala Lumpur and into Asia.
“I was an industry leader but always based my whole concept around buying more farming land.
“In 2009, we purchased a property off Dick Lester on the town boundary - 11kms of river frontage which my wife and I were going to make our retirement block in Williams and it was right next door.
“Basically any land coming up along-side of us we would purchase because it was in our portfolio that we could grow the oats and within three years we would pay for the land - it was amazing.”
Despite his various legal matters and opposition in some sectors of the WA rural community, Mr Culleton said he had the steadfast support of One Nation leader and party founder Pauline Hanson, who was elected as a Senator for Queensland.
“The only thing Pauline has said to me is perhaps her office needs to be right next to mine so she can keep an eye on me,” he said.
“But that’s OK I’m just down the hall way so I’m quite happy to open up the door and yell out if I need her to come down for anything.
“But nothing is strained and she’s 100 per cent behind me and knows me as a person.
“All these things were happening before I became a Senator and this is just another piece in the jig-saw puzzle and I’ve been able to put the picture together.”
After attending Senate orientation training this week in Canberra - including meeting Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for talks about a Royal Commission into banking focussed on farm foreclosure issues - Mr Culleton was confident of returning next week and being sworn in as a Senator, on the first day of the new parliament.
“The best way to describe me is like a bloody good boomerang; I come back,” he said.
“I will win – there’s no question – because I don’t lose.
“But I don’t expect it to be all perfect and if it was all perfect it wouldn’t be interesting and fun.
“This has really prepared me, every knock and punch, and being the captain of the ship now, and having the parliament behind me, I’d have to be Australia’s best asset at the moment.”
Mr Culleton said his election for One Nation had been a “culture shock” for people who’d traditionally voted Liberal and National in regional WA.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of people that I’ve done business with in the Williams area and we get on well - in fact I was out to tea with one the other night,” he said.