Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Prince' of fraudsters scored $16 million

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BRISBANE -- He's not quite the Talented Mr. Ripley, but in the annals of identity theft Joel Barlow deserves more than just an honourable mention.

This audacious fraud who started life in poverty and morphed into a prince needs his own chapter to do justice to his powers of manipulation and deceit.

The son of a violent drunk born in a provincial New Zealand town, Joel (or Joseph or Hohepa or even Hikairo, no one is quite sure) came to the northern Australian state of Queensland in 2001 and reinvented himself in a spectacular fashion.

No longer a dirt-poor Kiwi, he was (or so he told his work colleagues) the son of a Tahitian king.

That the last king of Tahiti reportedly died of alcoholism in 1891 was of small matter to Prince Joel, as was the question of exactly what this handsome scion of Pacific royalty was doing working as a lowly bureaucrat in the Queensland Health Department.

Charming, amusing, kind-natured, he soon won over even skeptical colleagues who had to agree this was no ordinary public servant with a short-sleeve shirt and a front pocket lined with pens.

A luxury river-side apartment in Brisbane, another in Paris, the black Mercedes-Benz C63, the art works, the 19th century French decanter set -- even the Louis Vuitton surfboard -- seemed oddly appropriate for an aristocratic, South Pacific upbringing.

Joel knew how to entertain. He once threw a $140,000 birthday party for his friends in Brisbane, where a cake was wheeled in shaped like Louis Vuitton luggage.

Louis Vuitton was a favoured designer label -- Joel was so enamoured he became its biggest customer in the Southern Hemisphere.

More important, Joel knew how to accessorize his fantasy with those deft touches which reassured even the most jaundiced eye.

When New Zealand's Maori queen died, he obtained video of the funeral and convinced friends he was one of the pall bearers who were suitably obscure amid fuzzy camera angles.

When Prince William announced his marriage to Kate Middleton, Joel swiftly applied for holidays to coincide with the Royal wedding -- must fly the family flag you know!

It was all tosh, bunk, claptrap. Poppycock, as a British royal might say.

Joel had simply figured out the grants system at Queensland Health, set up a private company and posted himself generous slabs of taxpayer cash to fund a princely lifestyle.

As a court later heard, "human failings and systematic weakness" in Queensland Health allowed him to collect more than $16 million between 2007 and 2011 but, after the inevitable detection, things turned ugly.

Joel, stripped of his royal dignity, was found lying on a bed in his luxury Brisbane apartment dying of a suspected drug overdose.

He survived and in March of this year was sentenced to 16 years in a Brisbane jail.

For the former Labor state government, on watch while Prince Joel fleeced taxpayers, it was a little, err, awkward.

A government-funded public watchdog, the Crime and Misconduct Commission, this week completed an investigation into the whole sorry saga and warned internal weakness in government departments made fraud an ongoing problem.

All departments have been put on alert but even the CMC didn't advise we keep an eye out for royals around the water cooler.

It suggested few frauds would ever be as "flamboyant" as Joel.


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 27, 2013 A15

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