Doomsday cult ordered to pay millions to taxman

The financial empire of the Agape Ministries doomsday cult will be carved up by the Australian Taxation Office following a $3 million AUS court judgment.

Sean Fewster, court reporter at The Advertiser, reports

This morning, the District Court ordered the controversial group and its fugitive founder, Rocco Leo, settle their debts with the Australian Taxation Office.

For two years, the ATO has pursued Agape, Leo and his confidante, Joe Veneziano, for amounts left unpaid since 2009.

It stripped Agape of its tax-exempt status as a religion and froze its assets – eight properties, 13 vehicles and 10 bank accounts in SA and Victoria.

Auditors sought $4.1 million, claiming Leo had “juggled” a further $5.6 million between his accounts in a “very crude attempt to hide money”.


Previously, the court has heard Leo and his inner circle of followers are in Fiji. […]

Today, Stephen Lynton, for the ATO, said the nature of the case had changed.

He told the court new calculations had found Leo owed $2.4 million, Veneziano owed $1.1 million while Agape Ministries’ debt was just $17,952.20.

Sam Doyle, for the defendants, said his clients would not oppose any order they pay those amounts.

Doomsday Cult

Rocco Leo fled to Fiji in May 2010, just before police raided his Agape Ministries properties where they discovered thousands of rounds of ammunition and guns.

Former followers claim Leo preached a doomsday scenario, promising them a new life on an island in Vanuatu to save them from the end of the world.

Police say followers have sold properties and provided the money to help fund the plan.

Leo was arrested in Fiji in June last year, along with his closest associates Mari Antoinette Veneziano and her brother Joseph, for visa breaches.

In July that year South Australian authorities said they will not pursue Leo over 126 fraud allegations after a review determined there were no reasonable prospects of a conviction.

At the time Director of Public Prosecutions Stephen Pallaras said the case involved about 30 witnesses, but that investigations been hindered by a reluctance of former Agape Ministries members to speak out against Leo.

Pallaras said the authorities “were dealing with people in a religious sect who may not have as their highest priority assisting police.”

But Pallaras said prosecutors would consider any fresh evidence that became available.

Lawsuits

Last June Leo a profoundly disabled woman won her $500,000 lawsuit against Leo by default.

Ms. Silvia Melchiorre claimed Leo duped her into handing over the $420,000 in return for promises he would heal her and save her from global armageddon.

In March Leo settled a lawsuit with another former member who sued him over donations to the doomsday cult.

Court documents in the lawsuit filed by businessman Martin Penney allege Leo convinced him he would be poisoned and killed by the government unless he handed over $1.2 million.

Leo told members of Agape Ministries the earth’s population would soon be impregnated with tiny microchips that would hold their personal information.

Those who refused the chip would be branded terrorists and gassed or beheaded in government-run concentration camps.

Note: Financial amounts reported in Australian dollars. At the time of this report: 1.00 AUD = 1.05570 USD

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This post was last updated: Aug. 13, 2012