Court orders Agape cult bank records, strips tax exemption

The Advertiser, Australia/November 21, 2010

Agape Ministries has been stripped of its legal status as a religion, lost its tax exemption and will be sued by the Federal Government for a decade of unpaid debt.

The District Court yesterday gave the nation's banks 72 hours to hand over all records concerning alleged cult leader Rocco Leo, his wife, his closest confidants and the two-state empire he controls.

The Advertiser has learnt those records are essential to the Australian Taxation Office's efforts to calculate the former church's total debt, which could exceed $1 million.

Yesterday Richard Ross-Smith, for the ATO, said his client had taken action without informing Leo, whose lawyers this week claimed he would return to Adelaide in January to face assault charges.

Though Leo's whereabouts are unknown, it is believed police had searched for him in Fiji and Vanuatu.

In August, The Advertiser revealed Leo and Agape Ministries controlled eight properties, 13 vehicles and 10 bank accounts in South Australia and Victoria.

That month, Agape sold one Victorian property for $1.6 million in breach of an existing asset-freezing order.

A police raid on Agape-owned properties, in May, allegedly seized illegal firearms, extendable batons and ammunition.

The Advertiser understands the ATO filed its action against Agape and Leo on November 12, soon after revoking the group's tax-exempt status.

That means Agape is no longer considered "a religion" nor "a charity" for legal purposes.

Yesterday Mr Ross-Smith asked the court order Commonwealth Bank and Westpac to surrender their records to the ATO.

He said the ATO wanted access to the accounts of Leo, his wife Assunta, his confidants Joe and Mari Antoinette Veneziano, and a person named Giavannina Roscio.

It also wanted records for the accounts of Agape Ministries International, Capital Direct Australia and Universal Holdings.

"Those are the details we need for the freezing order," he said.

Judge Sydney Tilmouth granted the order and adjourned the case until December.

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