DOWNFOR THE COUNT
The heavyweight courtroom title fight of the world
As a journalist, one’s job is to remain impartial. But MARIA SLADE admits she’s never struggled so hard to retain her objectivity as she did covering the High Court hearing into heavyweight professional boxer David Tua’s bitter and expensive dispute with his former manager Kevin Barry, and former business manager Martin Pugh
I came to the Tua story cold. I knew little about the case, and even less about the venality of the professional boxing world. But it was decided in the newsroom that this was a news, as opposed to a sport, story, and I was dispatched to Auckland’s High Court.
“Take what boxing people say with a grain of salt and keep your hand on your wallet,” joked a sports journalist colleague.
But this is New Zealand. The David Tua/Kevin Barry partnership, albeit now soured, was kiwi sporting salt-of-the-earth. The dirty dealings of the boxing ring had surely no more taken hold here than the Mafia had.
One look at the way Barry and his cohort Martin Pugh had dressed to come to court and I realised I didn’t know what I was dealing with.
Bleached and greased hair, gold medallions, winkle-picker brogues with white socks and shirts more suitable for a night out clubbing. If they’d wanted to portray the image of wily, slimy creatures that had crawled out from beneath boxing’s nasty underbelly, they were going the right way about it.
Contrast this with the Tua entourage. David Tua and his cousin-turned-manager, former rugby and league star Inga Tuigamala, turned up each morning like five-year-olds on the first day of school. Neatly pressed in business shirts and ties atop black ie-faitagas (formal skirts worn by Samoan men), they sat through every minute of the proceedings. At their sides were their smartly dressed wives, and constantly surrounding them was a guard of friends, family members and boxing comrades. Supporters came and went as the week wore on. David Tua long ago won the public’s hearts and minds in what it perceived as his greatest fight.
Baby-faced, he told the court he was “just a fighter” and that Kevin Barry attended to every other detail of his professional boxing life. “You rely on your manager so you can just fight. I signed things exactly as they were put in front of me. Kevin was my trusted manager.”
David Tua said Kevin Barry and Martin Pugh had a plan. “They talked about a company, but I didn’t know what that was all about.”
What that was about was the trio’s Exclusive Management Agreement which states the company, Tuaman Inc, is owned 50% by David Tua, and 25% each by Kevin Barry and Martin Pugh. Tua was under the impression Tuaman Inc was his company. So was company accountant Jennie Grant. “I was led to believe that the company was David Tua’s, and only his,” she told the court. “For that reason alone the books I was trying to keep were misconceived.”
The boxer described the day in April 2001 when he went with Martin Pugh to look at the asset at the heart of the dispute – the multi-million-dollar, 51 hectare beach front property at Pakiri, north of Auckland. “I thought it was heaven, it reminded me of home in Samoa. Right away I wanted to buy it. I wanted it for myself and my family. I could see myself retiring there and growing a bit of taro.” Tua said Pugh told him to buy it through Tuaman Inc for tax purposes. “He said he was trying to protect me. But I never knew how that was supposed to work.”
The Pugh and Barry camp argue through their shares in Tuaman Inc they own equivalent slices of Pakiri, and that the trio’s plan had always been to invest Tuaman Inc funds in property.
David Tua maintains there was no talk of Kevin Barry and Martin Pugh buying the property with him. “There was never a ‘me and you’ or a ‘we’ll buy it’. The conversation was about the land being bought for me.”
As he spoke to the court I thought, can a man who earned millions of dollars by knocking people out really be that naïve, or is this beguiling innocence a great act?
Trying to remain objective, I also thought that perhaps there’s a certain style one becomes accustomed to living in Las Vegas, and this could explain the impression of Kevin Barry and Martin Pugh. After all they move in the sorts of circles where people keep tigers as pets. Then Barry and Pugh opened their mouths.
Throughout his lengthy cross-examination by David Tua’s lawyer Tony Molloy QC, Martin Pugh was petulant and argumentative. He sat virtually with his back to the lawyer and refused to look at him. At times he patronisingly repeated his replies syllable by syllable as if Molloy was unable to understand them. Kevin Barry was defiant. Both frequently attempted to hammer home a point by talking on and over their cross-examiner. The irritated Molloy raised his voice on more than one occasion, and at one point shouted at Barry: “Will you answer the questions I ask and be quiet the rest of the time!” To which Barry cheekily replied: “I’ve never seen you so angry.” Tony Molloy later remarked, “You have more soliloquies in you Mr Barry than Shakespeare.”
A lot of what Martin Pugh said was nonsense.
Molloy questioned Pugh closely on what he knew of his responsibilities as sole director and therefore the board of Tuaman Inc. Tony Forlong, the accountant Tua hired in July 2003 as the relationship between boxer and managers dissolved, had earlier given evidence that Martin Pugh was “well out of his depth” in running a company. He needn’t have bothered.
It was a truth Pugh revealed all by himself as Molloy’s cross-examination progressed.
Pugh disputed the court-appointed accountants’ calculation that between 2002 and 2004, he and Kevin Barry respectively took $1.4 million and $1.2 million out of Tuaman Inc. The QC queried him about the absence of signed and audited accounts for Tuaman Inc for those years. Molloy asked him if he’d had alternative accounts prepared by professionals of a comparable stature to the court-appointed ones, to support his argument.
Pugh claimed that he had but that the court would not allow him to produce them.
Martin Pugh: “The figures I put in front of the court I provided to Price Waterhouse Coopers for their validity check which this court has ordered me not to refer to.”
Tony Molloy: “Where are the accounts? I’m not asking you about validity checks, whatever they are”
Later in the exchange he asserted that no professionally prepared and audited accounts were done because “taxation is decided by the shareholders of the company. The court-appointed accountants have taken the view of undoing three years of methodology of accounting the company followed.” Molloy was moved to remark that it was a stance every New Zealand company would love to take.
When Tony Molloy asked him if he’d ever taken expert tax advice he replied yes, from myself. When then asked what qualified him to provide such advice, there followed a long discourse on how there’s a simple principle involved of paying a percentage of the company’s income in tax, and standard tax return forms are available on the internet. Pugh claimed he adopted a “no harm, no foul” policy with the IRD.
Kevin Barry’s knowledge of company law was little better.
Tony Molloy: “You poured scorn in your brief on the idea that David Tua didn’t understand about shares in the company. What I would like to know is whether you understand. The impression I get from your affidavits is that you think a 25% shareholding in a company entitles you to 25% of the company’s income and 25% of its profit. Is that what you think?”
Kevin Barry: “Yes that’s right.”
The proceedings came down to credibility. It was clear Tuaman Inc was owned half by David Tua and a quarter each by Kevin Barry and Martin Pugh, and that Pakiri was owned by Tuaman Inc. The nexus of the Tua case was the legal principle of express trust – that David Tua had conferred trust on Kevin Barry and Martin Pugh to buy the land on his behalf. The heart of the Barry and Pugh argument was that this had never been put in writing – indeed, it had never even been expressed in those terms.
Martin Pugh’s questionable accounting was therefore not directly relevant to the issue of who owns Pakiri, but it served to highlight the kind of person before the court.
As such, his habit of forging signatures and creatively moving Tuaman Inc funds around were central to their case.
Martin Pugh admitted to Tony Molloy that he had forged signatures on at least two occasions. Once was when he forged Tuaman company accountant Jennie Grant’s signature on a Companies Office document. On another occasion he ‘cut and pasted’ middleweight boxer Maselino Masoe’s signature on to a fight promotion agreement.
The admissions came with no apparent shame. “I received no benefit,” Pugh said. “In closing,” he said grandly, and tried to raise the saga of Prime Minister Helen Clark signing an art work she had not created. Presiding judge Justice Williams cut him off.
Another incident raised by Tony Molloy went to the heart of Martin Pugh’s credibility. In December 2001 around $925,000 was transferred from Tuaman Inc to a company in Vanuatu called Sports Tech set up by Richard Gregory, a friend of Pugh’s. Some of that money was used to set up debit cards for Pugh, his partner Sally Cross, Kevin Barry and his wife, and others.
The sum remaining was around $809,000. The next month $809,000 was transferred back to Auckland to the Baron and Lunar Trust, a family trust associated with Sally Cross. Sally Cross then paid off business debts amounting to $809,000. Martin Pugh conceded the matching amounts looked strange, but said there was nothing “sinister” about it. He claimed he had 200 pages of documents to explain the deal, which he would present at a future trial. “Once you see the documents it will make sense to the court. I do not wish to play my hand in regard to that.”
Martin Pugh variously described the steps in the transaction as a loan, a bond, and then a guarantee. Molloy put it to him that this story was a cover-up for the misappropriation of funds from Tuaman. He denied it.
David Tua told the court he had “a funny feeling” about Martin Pugh. He said it was Kevin Barry’s idea to involve him. “He (Kevin) said he was a smart businessman, and could be the ideal guy to manage the
finances and make investments for me. I trusted Kevin. He really wanted Marty on board, so I gave in.”
In his closing address, Tony Molloy said: “Having seen and heard Pugh and his admissions of forgery and lying, and his disdain for the laws of the land that ordinary conscientious citizens regard as an obligation to observe, let alone company directors, it is not at all surprising that Mr Tua didn’t like Mr Pugh.”
Kevin Barry and Martin Pugh fought back hard on the credibility battlefield. They claim it was the Tua camp which was planning to shaft them. The Tuas came to the management duo in January 2001 wanting changes to the EMA, such as the inclusion of a clause allowing David Tua to get a lawyer’s approval before any contract relating to his affairs was concluded. “Unbeknown to Kevin Barry and I, David Tua with his parents and their lawyer were plotting since September 2000 (the Lennox Lewis fight was in November 2000) to terminate the EMA and deprive Tuaman Inc and Kevin and I of our shares and substantial earnings,” Pugh said in his brief of evidence. “No wonder David Tua performed so poorly in losing his World Title Fight against Lennox Lewis,” Barry said. “He must have been feeling guilty as hell.”
They also claimed there were no missing Tua millions, that David Tua had spent it all, and in fact he owes Tuaman Inc. “David told us that he did not want his family, or the family solicitor or his Church, knowing how much money he had as they would have spent it all and that’s a fact (in the end the family and David spent it all anyway),” Kevin Barry states in his brief.
Martin Pugh claims David Tua’s now wife, Robina Sitene, gave the government an old address so she could continue to collect welfare while living with and being well supported by the boxer. “David would get request from Bina or his family all the time, and I mean all the time, to pay bills,” he said.
Jennie Grant sees matters another way. She told the court Kevin Barry and Martin Pugh simply helped themselves to Tuaman funds. In contrast she said David Tua had to come to her for every small amount of money he needed. “How degrading, that man who had earned millions, doesn’t even have his own money.”
Martin Pugh and Kevin Barry allege that matters deteriorated to the point of a High Court hearing because of “women’s scorn”.
“The only conclusion that I can see is that it now seems to be about Jennie Grant, Robina Sitene and their need to “beat him” (Martin) at something, I don’t know what, and trying to justify their belief that David still had millions that he hadn’t spent,” Kevin Barry said.
“I was adamant that this huha had arisen because of Jennie’s sacking and Bina’s finding out that she couldn’t get her hands on David’s money (because he and his family had spent it).”
And so the personal insults flew. The Tuas no doubt had plenty they would have liked to fling back, but they didn’t. Not once.
The court will no doubt decide on sound legal principles who the rightful owner of Pakiri is. Having sat through the week-long hearing, I have a firm view of who morally should win this most colourful of bouts.