Bankrupt entrepreneur Ramon Russell has left a trail of financial destruction after the failure of several technology companies, but federal Minister for Small Business Bruce Billson reckons his ‘‘chutzpah’’ should be applauded.
Mr Russell recently founded the Victorian Innovative Science and Technology Complex in Seaford, which was launched by Mr Billson two weeks ago, amid claims the venture would create up to 66 jobs and generate annual revenue of $16 million in the community, according to Frankston City Council figures.
‘‘Ramon has a chutzpah, a can-do attitude that we need to celebrate and support in this country,’’ Mr Billson told about 100 guests who attended the June 11 launch.
But Fairfax Media can reveal that Mr Russell has been investigated by Victoria Police and been the subject of at least two damning reports to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission.
Mr Russell has run a series of businesses that purport to have ground-breaking technologies ‘‘contributing to the greater good of the global environment’’. Over the past decade, he has spruiked robot technology, ‘‘magnetic vodka’’, and a process to convert plastic into diesel fuel.
While corporate regulators and police have been unwilling or unable to mount a case, Mr Russell has allegedly evaded more than $3 million in debts, but still continues to launch new ventures.
Mr Russell declared bankruptcy in November 2011. His wife, Anne Russell, also declared bankruptcy in July 2012 after serving as a director on several companies linked to her husband.
Mr Russell was brought to the attention of ASIC in 2011 following allegations of mismanagement from a corporate liquidator and again in 2013 over claims the identity of an intellectually disabled woman was used as a front for one of his companies.
Mr Russell’s most ambitious project was Liquid Separation, a company that supposedly held the rights to technology that could transform hazardous liquids into drinkable water. He claimed to have been close to selling the device to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Inghams and SPC Ardmona.
But the business collapsed in late 2011 amid allegations investors’ money had disappeared and the same shares had been sold to multiple parties. Corporate liquidators estimated the losses at $440,000, although angry investors said another $2.5 million in loans to Mr Russell had also disappeared.
‘‘In my view the company has failed due to very poor management. I believe the director has committed a number of offences [against] the Corporations Act,’’ liquidator Ross McDermott said in a report.
Despite being banned from acting as a director because of his bankruptcy, Mr Russell is now the ‘‘founding president’’ of the Conceptus group, the corporate entity behind the new Seaford complex opened by Mr Billson.
The director of the group and three other companies that are ‘‘members’’ of the project is Andrew Webb, a 58-year-old man whose registered address is a public housing flat in Mornington.
Mr Russell’s latest venture has infuriated victims of his previous business failures.
Sydney-based retiree Tony Bonvino lost $230,000 invested in three companies controlled by Mr Russell.
‘‘He can spin a good story and he gets people to believe him. The first company was about transforming plastic into diesel fuel. When that stalled he tried to convert coal into fuel. Then he closed that company down. He keeps coming up with these wonderful ideas that never work,’’ Mr Bonvino said.
Sam Circosta lost $500,000 in a company of Mr Russell’s that claimed to have technology that could convert coal into diesel and would be sold to listed mining company New Hope Corporation. The deal never eventuated.
‘‘He has left a trail of bad debt. There’s some innocent people who have lost their homes,’’ Mr Circosta said.
Mr Russell attributed the failure of his previous businesses to a ‘‘vendetta’’ waged by former investors and the negligence of his solicitor. He said he was only bringing his ‘‘expertise’’ to the Seaford complex as a consultant and had no financial stake in the business.
‘‘All I’ve done is try to get on with my life and help the shareholders that are still there,’’ he said. ‘‘If my credibility is so bad why did [MP] Bruce Billson officiate? People like that don’t associate with a charlatan.’’
But a spokeswoman for Mr Billson denied the Minister had any knowledge of Mr Russell’s business history.
“Ramon Russell approached the local federal member’s office seeking his participation in the opening of the centre.
‘‘On the basis of his representation about the centre’s purpose, clients and job creation prospects for the local area, the invitation was accepted,’’ the spokeswoman said.