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Lawyer jailed for 12 years for laundering $24m as part of tax fraud

Following the lifting of a non-publication order, it has been revealed that a Sydney-based lawyer was last year sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment for his role in the $105 million Plutus tax fraud conducted over a three-year period.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 23 March 2023 The Bar
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In June of last year, Sevag Chalabian was sentenced to 12 years behind bars for his role in knowingly dealing with the proceeds of crime, being amounts blackmailed from offenders participating in a syndicate that defrauded the Commonwealth of more than $105 million of unpaid tax over three years.

Mr Chalabian was found guilty of dealing in proceeds of crime worth $1 million or more, and received a non-parole period of seven years and six months.

Assets in a trust account controlled by Mr Chalabian, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Australian Taxation Office (ATO) noted, were also restrained.


On Tuesday (21 March), a court order suppressing the details of the conviction and sentence was lifted, following the conviction of the fifth of five individuals involved in the tax fraud, bringing an 11-month trial to a close.

The five others to have been convicted were siblings Adam and Lauren Cranston (son and daughter of former deputy tax commissioner Michael Cranston), Jason Onley, Patrick Willmott and lawyer Dev Menon.

There was no suggestion that Michael Cranston was involved in any wrongdoing.

Under Operation Elbrus, led by the AFP with significant assistance from the ATO, investigators uncovered what the two institutions called a “large-scale and organised tax fraud conspiracy”.

The operation exposed, the AFP and ATO detailed, a conspiracy that used Plutus Payroll Australia, and other payroll service entities, to divert amounts of money payable to the ATO as PAYG withholding tax and GST for the conspirators’ benefit.

Mr Chalabian was, at the time of his arrest, a solicitor.

He provided, AFP and ATO outlined, “the mechanism for disguising that over $24 million received into and then transferred out of his legal practice’s trust account was the proceeds of crime derived from other persons blackmailing the Plutus tax fraud conspirators of some of the proceeds of their fraud”.

Justice Peter Johnson of the Supreme Court of NSW said that Mr Chalabian, “as a solicitor, played a critical role in the offending, utilising his professional status as a solicitor and access to a trust account which provided a level of cover for the criminal activity involved”.

The offending, His Honour noted, was in the high range of objective gravity for offences of this kind, reflecting substantial moral culpability.

AFP Assistant Commissioner Kirsty Schofield said, following the lifting of the non-publication order, that the outcome was the result of diligent investigation and financial analysis in the wake of the initial Operation Elbrus arrests.

“This arrest came from a thorough and forensic analysis of the money that flowed out of the large-scale tax fraud, highlighting the commitment of all involved in this matter,” she said.

“As we gathered more evidence of the blackmail conspiracy, we were able to link it to the flow of millions of dollars from syndicate members that were facilitated by this man.

“This sentence should send a clear message to those engaged in criminal behaviour — we will always follow the money, and often it can lead to criminal charges or asset confiscation, or both.”

ATO deputy commissioner and serious financial crime taskforce chief John Ford added that the sentence reflected the severity of Mr Chalabian’s offending.

“This is a significant result, highlighting that we will protect Australia’s revenue, and we will hold criminals to account,” he declared.

“This was the eighth sentencing outcome for Operation Elbrus, and we have continued to see successful outcomes progressing through the courts.”

Mr Ford went on: “We have a wide net, where we’re focusing on financial criminals and professional enablers who choose to commit serious financial crime. If you become involved, you will be caught.

“Tax crime affects everyone. The Plutus tax fraud ripped off innocent creditors and deprived the public of valuable funds that could otherwise be used to fund essential services.”

The matter was prosecuted by the Commonwealth DPP.