Cult and leader owe $4m: ATO

The Advertiser, Australia/November 24, 2010

Fallen religious leader Rocco Leo and his former church owe more than $4.1 million in unpaid taxes for 2009-10 alone, court documents claim.

In documents filed with the District Court, the Australian Taxation Office calculates Leo's personal debt for last financial year to be $1.75 million.

Agape Ministries International, the documents claim, owes $1.69 million for the same period while Leo's confidant, Joseph Veneziano, is said to owe almost $700,000.

Those figures are just the tip of the iceberg for the ATO, which last month stripped Agape of its tax-exempt status as a religion.

Bureaucrats are preparing to pore through 10 years' worth of seized bank records to determine how many millions Agape must pay.

Opponents of Agape claim it is a cult, and that Leo made his fortune by duping parishioners with stories of government plans to microchip humans and kill those who disagreed in concentration camps.

Leo allegedly claimed mankind's only salvation was a South Pacific island he said he owned.

Church members have denied those claims, but admit human microchipping was "discussed" in Bible class.

Leo is being sued by two former parishioners for $1.2 million and $420,000 respectively, who claim they made donations under fraudulent circumstances.

One, a severely disabled woman, claims Leo promised to heal her on his island.

Leo is also due to face the Holden Hill Magistrates Court in January, accused of assaulting a parishioner's former husband at Adelaide Airport.

Last week, the ATO was granted access to all bank records concerning Leo, Veneziano, their wives and Agape's two-state empire.

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

In its statement of claim, filed with the court, the ATO says it is entitled under the Taxation Administration Act (1953) to "sue to recover debts". Veneziano "failed to pay income tax for the year ended 30 June 2010 on or before the relevant due date".

The documents also ask the court order Leo and the defendants pay the ATO's court costs.

Defence documents have yet to be filed, and the matter will return to court next month.

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