By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
On 22 February 2013, Mr Anthony Elkerton of Dean Willcocks Insolvency Solutions was appointed liquidator of SM Project Developments, which was forced into liquidation by the Australian Tax Office in the month prior due to unpaid bills.
The company was co-owned by then Auburn deputy mayor Salim Mehajer, who was recently sentenced to 21 months behind bars for rigging the 2012 Auburn Council election, which was the one that led to him becoming the second ranking official.
At the time of the liquidation, Mr Mehajer’s solicitor sister, Zenah Osman, was the principal of the law practice Mehajer Legal Group. Ms Osman was also the director of the company A Link Technology, which was one of the creditors that SM Project Development owed money to.
Forged signatures and false claims
Prior to a meeting on 29 February 2014, Mr Elkerton received proof of debt and appointment of proxy documents from the various people and organisations that SM Project Development had outstanding debts with.
Ms Osman approached SM Project Development general manager Mr Ahmed Yaseen on 17 May and ascertained that he had forged her signature on the documents submitted to the liquidator under her name and her company’s names.
But, Ms Osman didn’t inquire as to whether documents submitted on behalf of other creditors were forgeries. And on 26 May, she sent a letter to Bridges Lawyers, the liquidator’s legal representative, and advised them her practice has submitted documents on behalf of other creditors.
Bridges Lawyers then emailed Ms Osman on 17 June and informed her that they had been in contact with various creditors, who had advised them that she was not acting on their behalf. Ms Osman failed to respond or take any action in regard to the correspondence.
Former reality TV star Nikee Sawyer was also one of the creditors. On 25 June, she informed Ms Osman that the signatures appearing on her documents were forged.
Ms Osman then appeared in the Federal Court of Australia on 1 July and told Deputy District Registrar Mr Geoffrey Segal that she was acting on behalf of a list of creditors, which she knew or ought to have known she was not.
Throughout August, Ms Osman continued corresponding with Bridges Lawyers claiming she had or still was representing various creditors. And on 4 September, she affirmed an affidavit during Federal Court proceedings in which she claimed she had no knowledge of who executed her proof of debt.
Ms Osman appeared before the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) on 14 March this year, following a complaint that was made by Mr Dominic Calabria of Bridges Lawyers on 1 August 2014.
The NSW Law Society sought that Ms Osman’s name be struck off the roll of lawyers on the grounds that she mislead the court, made false and misleading representations and purported to act for organisations or people without instruction to do so.
This was in accordance with section 562 of the Legal Profession Act 2004.
This Act was repealed and replaced by the Legal Profession Uniform Law on 1 July 2015. However, the new legislation provides that a complaint or investigation begun before its commencement can be dealt with under the earlier legislation.
The Law Society also sought to have Ms Osman’s name struck off on two further grounds. These were for swearing and serving an affidavit when she knew or ought to have known was false, pursuant with section 302 of the Legal Profession Uniform Law.
The tribunal hearing
Ms Osman, whose name was placed on the roll in February 2009, provided no explanation for her conduct to NCAT prior to the hearing, nor was there any evidence given that demonstrated “remorse, insight and understanding, or regret.”
During the hearing, Ms Osman explained that she was pregnant at the time the conduct that gave rise to the complaints was carried out, and she’d left Mr Yaseen, who is not a lawyer, in charge of her practice, but didn’t give him the authority to sign documents in her name.
Under cross-examination, Ms Osman got defensive, claiming she didn’t know anything about the liquidation, which she didn’t want to be a part of, as she thought it involved “some sort of dodgy deal.”
“They needed me and my letterhead. I didn’t even get paid. They lied to me,” she told the Tribunal. She added that unfortunately she “can’t do nothing,” which the panel understood “to be a statement that she is not able to correct her past wrongs.”
Ms Osman claimed she was no longer practising. But, when pressed she said she was “only sending emails” and was doing “nothing heavy.” The three member bench of the Tribunal took this to mean she hadn’t ceased practising.
Not a fit and proper person
NCAT Principal Members Robert Titterton and Linda Pearson, as well as General Member Bruce Thomson were satisfied that Ms Osman was guilty of professional misconduct.
“It is trite to say that a legal practitioner misleading a court in which she or he appears must be amongst the most egregious misconduct that a legal professional can commit,” the members said. They added that the conduct was “more reprehensible” as Ms Osman provided no explanation.
The panel said that Ms Osman’s comment, “I don’t even deserve to be here to be quite honest,” revealed her attitude and lack of understanding regarding the disciplinary complaints that had been brought against her.
The members stated that due to the level of her professional misconduct, Ms Osman was “not a fit and proper person” to be an officer of the NSW Supreme Court. They found no evidence of mitigating circumstances nor of any remorse or insight into the nature of her offending conduct.
Struck off the roll
The three member NCAT panel found that suspension, reprimand or a fine were not adequate penalties due to the magnitude of the misconduct. Rather, they came to the view that Ms Osman was permanently unfit for practice.
On 23 May this year, they ordered that Ms Osman’s name be removed from the roll of lawyers, and that she pay the costs of the Law Society of NSW.