Nugan Hand Bank

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Nugan Hand Bank was an Australian merchant bank that collapsed in 1980 after the suicide of one of its founders, Australian lawyer Francis John Nugan, resulting in a major scandal. News stories suggested that the bank had been involved in illegal activities, including drug smuggling, arranging weapons deals, and providing a front for the United States Central Intelligence Agency. Speculation grew when it became known that the bank had employed a number of retired United States military and intelligence officers, including former CIA director William Colby.

Investors' losses and the speculation surrounding the bank's activities led to three major government investigations over the next five years. The bank's co-founder, American Michael Jon Hand, and two other bank employees were indicted for conspiring to "pervert the course of justice" by destroying or removing bank records. Hand fled abroad in June 1980. Ultimately, a royal commission of inquiry found that while the bank had committed numerous violations of banking laws, the allegations of drug-smuggling, weapons sales, and involvement in CIA activities were not supported.[1]


Nugan Hand Ltd. was founded in Sydney in 1973 by Australian lawyer Francis John "Frank" Nugan and former U.S. Green Beret Michael Jon "Mike" Hand. According to writer Alfred W. McCoy, the bank was formed with a fraudulent claim of $1m in share capital: "With only $80 in the company's bank account and just $5 in paid-up capital, Frank Nugan wrote his own company a personal check for $980,000 to purchase 490,000 shares of its stock. He then covered his massive overdraft by writing himself a company check for the same amount."[2]

The Nugan Hand Bank attracted investors with promises of up to 16% interest rates on their deposits and assurances of anonymity, tax-free accounts, specialist investment assistance, along with more surreptitious services such as money laundering. Nugan Hand rapidly gained business and expanded its offices from a single Sydney office to a global network that included branches (registered in the Cayman Islands) in Chiang Mai, Manila, Hawaii, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Cayman Islands and Washington D.C..

According to a former employee speaking in 1980, the bank paid commission of up to 2.5% on unsecured investments of $1m or more, when the going rate was around 0.25%. Together with related costs, the bank was paying over 12% to access funds.[3] Yet the bank never became involved in traditional merchant banking activities like equity investment or mortgage financing; instead, its principals sought all manner of unconventional investment opportunities, including gun running and attempts to corner various commodities markets, such as Malaysian rubber and Indonesian oil.[3] Via its Cayman Islands subsidiary it also provided tax avoidance and evasion schemes.[3]

The Nugan Hand Bank gained respectability by the recruitment of a number of retired senior U.S. military and intelligence personnel, such as former Rear Admiral Earl Yates as bank president and ex-CIA head William Colby as legal counsel.

Australian trucking magnate Peter Abeles was also connected with the bank.[4]

The bank's Saudi Arabian representative was Bernie Houghton.[5]

Michael Hand had formed a close business and social relationship with former Sydney police constable and underworld "patron", Murray Stewart Riley. From April 1976, Hand initiated five cash transfers totaling $295,000 to the Hong Kong office. Riley’s subordinates used these funds to buy heroine that was then shipped to Australia. Upon Riley’s advice, Hand opened branches in Thailand “to attract drug money” and two years later, ordered the destruction of all incriminating records relating to Riley’s money transfers.[6]

Scandal and collapse[edit]

The bank's collapse was precipitated by the death of its founder Frank Nugan in the early hours of 27 January 1980. Nugan (who was facing charges of stock fraud) was found shot dead by a .30-calibre rifle in his Mercedes-Benz outside Lithgow, New South Wales. An inquest later returned a verdict of suicide. Suspicions of the bank's activities grew in subsequent days as details emerged of the contents of Nugan's car (including the business card of William Colby) and news that Nugan's house and office had been ransacked by Hand and Yates and important company files destroyed or stolen.[citation needed]

The official inquest into Nugan's death in April 1980 made front-page news amid testimony from Hand that Nugan Hand was insolvent, owing at least A$50 million (and as much as hundreds of millions), including $20,000 rent on their Sydney headquarters.

After destroying many of Nugan Hand's records, Hand fled Australia under a false identity in June 1980.[7]


Three major government investigations issued reports devoted to the activities of Nugan Hand. Two of these were from bodies specifically created to examine the scandal: the first, the Commonwealth-New South Wales Joint Task on Drug Trafficking, consisted of investigators from federal and state government, and lasted from 1980 to 1983; the second, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Activities of the Nugan Hand Group, was headed by a single Commissioner, Donald G. Stewart, and lasted from 1983 to 1985. In addition, the Corporate Affairs Commission of New South Wales, a state level organ charged with regular oversight of business activities in New South Wales, began looking into the bank almost immediately after Nugan's suicide[8] and issued seven interim reports from 1980 until 1983, when it completed its investigation.

A report by the New South Wales Corporate Affairs Committee linked former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos to the bank.[9] Melbourne and Manila businessman Ludwig Petre Rocka had an account at the bank, as did his wife Elizabeth E. Marcos, sister of Ferdinand. Rocka had helped set up the Manila branch of Nugan Hand and had his Manila office (International Development & Planning Corporation) in the same office as the bank.

A subsequent royal commission inquiring into the activities of the Nugan Hand Group found money-laundering, illegal tax avoidance schemes, and widespread violations of banking laws by Nugan Hand.[10] One witness, a former Nugan Hand director, stated that Hand threatened bank executives: "If we didn't do what we were told, and things weren't handled properly, our wives would be cut into pieces and put in boxes and sent back to us".[11]

It has long been a subject of speculation that Nugan Hand played some part in Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam's dismissal.[12]

No one connected with Nugan Hand has ever been convicted of a crime.

In March 1991, the Australian magazine The Eye reported that Michael Hand was living in the United States, giving an address and other details,[13] but Australian authorities declined to pursue an extradition.[14]

In November 2015, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that a new book, Merchants of Menace by Peter Butt, provided evidence that Hand was living under the name Michael Jon Fuller, in Idaho Falls, Idaho.[15]


  1. ^ "Royal commission report: Nugan Hand 'not into drugs, arms'". The Canberra Times (ACT). 1985-11-28. p. 8. Retrieved 2015-05-03. 
  2. ^ McCoy, Alfred W. (1991). The politics of heroin: CIA complicity in the global drug trade. Lawrence Hill Books. pp. 462–478. ISBN 1556521251. 
  3. ^ a b c Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September 1980, Ambitious schemes never eventuated: Chase after an elusive 'big deal'
  4. ^ Tony Reeves, Mr Sin: The Abe Saffron Dossier, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2007, p 84.
  5. ^ Sydney Morning Herald, 25 September 1980, The last 20 frantic day's of Frank Nugan's life: Desperate bid to save bank empire
  6. ^ McCoy Alfred W. (1991) 468.
  7. ^ Sheehan, Paul; Tom Ballantyne; and Greg Wilesmith (21 August 1981), "How Michael Hand Left Australia", Sydney Morning Herald 
  8. ^ Kwitny, p. 333
  9. ^ Foley, Stephen (8 April 1983), "NSW report shows link with Marcos relatives", The Age 
  10. ^ "Cabinet Documents on the Inquiry into the Nugan-Hand Group : Government of the Commonwealth of Australia". Internet Archive. Retrieved 2015-10-03. 
  11. ^ Morton, James; and Susanna Lobez (2010), Dangerous to Know: An Australasian Crime Compendium, Melbourne University Publishing, p. unknown, ISBN 978-0-522-85681-1  Morton and Lobez cite John Owen's 1983 book Sleight of Hand: The $25 Million Nugan Hand Bank Scandal for the claim.
  12. ^ e.g., Blum, William, 'Australia 1973-1975: Another free election bites the dust' in Killing Hope: US military and CIA interventions since World War II. Common Courage Press, Maine 1995, p. 249. Inter alia, it is alleged that the bank transferred $2.4 million to the Liberal Party of Australia which contested two forced elections in 1974 and 1975 to oust Whitlam's Labor government.
  13. ^ Campbell, Rod (1991-03-27). "Notorious banker found, but who cares?". Canberra Times. p. 1. Retrieved 2015-05-03. 
  14. ^ Campbell, Rod (1991-04-08). "No extradition for Hand". Canberra Times. p. 7. Retrieved 2015-05-06. 
  15. ^ Murphy, Damien (2015-11-09). "Nugan Hand bank mystery: Michael Hand found living in the United States". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2015-11-10.