Flynn ‘blocked’ army move Turkey opposed

Days before President Donald Trump took office, incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn blocked a military plan against the Islamic State group that was opposed by Turkey, a country he had been paid more than $US500,000 ($A672,400) to advocate for, the McClatchy news service reports.

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According to the report, Flynn declined a request from the Obama administration to approve an operation in the IS stronghold of Raqqa, effectively delaying the military operation.

His reasoning wasn’t reported, but Turkey has long opposed US military operations in co-operation with Kurdish forces.

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At the time, Flynn had not yet registered as a foreign agent and disclosed that he had been paid to lobby on behalf of the Turkish government. Weeks after his firing, Flynn retroactively registered with the Justice Department.

News about Flynn’s activity comes amid intense scrutiny over his and other Trump associates’ potential contacts with Russia.

On Wednesday, the Department of Justice named former FBI Director Robert Mueller to be special counsel investigating Russian efforts to influence the US presidential election. Mueller will have sweeping powers, including the right to bring federal charges.

House and Senate intelligence committees are also investigating.

Trump fired Flynn in February on other grounds – that he misled Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the US.

McClatchy’s reporting reflects previous reports in The New Yorker and other media outlets about Flynn’s work on behalf of Turkey.

The military plan against the Islamic State stronghold was eventually approved, but not until after Flynn had been fired.

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PM says alleged tax fraud implicating ATO deputy commissioner ‘regrettable’

But he’s congratulated the Australian Federal Police for cracking the conspiracy, with nine people arrested so far.

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Australian Taxation Office deputy commissioner Michael Cranston, 58, has been issued with a court attendance notice for allegedly abusing his position as a public official.

AFP say Mr Cranston was not part of the syndicate, which involved his son.

“This is very much to be regretted,” Mr Turnbull told reporters in Brisbane on Thursday.

“Nobody should imagine they can escape our law enforcement agencies no matter how high they may be in a government department.

“No matter how high they may be, they are being watched.”

AFP give detail of the raid and charges

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The prime minister said the fact the alleged conspirators had been caught proved the system worked.

“We have zero tolerance for this type of conspiracy, this type of fraud, this type of abuse of public office,” he said.

“We have a relentless pursuit of corruption, malpractice, abuse of office, the AFP have a very keen focus on it … as has been demonstrated.”

Mr Cranston has not been officially been charged, but is due to face Sydney Central court next month.

Four ATO officers are also being investigated, said the AFP.

How this alleged $165m tax fraud syndicate operated

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Mr Cranston’s 30-year-old son, Adam, and 24-year-old daughter and seven other people were arrested over a $165 million tax fraud investigation.

Adam Cranston appeared via video link at Central Local Court on Thursday charged with conspiracy to defraud the Commonwealth.

He was released on bail as were two others also allegedly involved in the criminal syndicate.

A further two people are expected to appear at Central Local Court via video link later on Thursday.

Adam’s Cranston’s sister, Lauren Anne Cranston, is due to face court in mid-June.

Seized items are displayed at a press conference at the AFP headquarters in Sydney on Thursday, May 18, 2017. (AAP)AAP

The arrests were made following an eight-month investigation, codenamed Operation Elbrus, with assistance from ATO, Australian Federal Police (AFP) said on Thursday.

“The scale of this allege fraud is unprecedented for the AFP,” said Australian Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Operations Leanne Close on Thursday.

It is a significant fraud investigation, financial fraud criminal investigation, that the AFP has led since 2016.

Acting Commissioner of Taxation Andrew Mills told reporters in Sydney on Thursday Mr Cranston had “up until this point… held an illustrious career”.

“We do take it extraordinarily seriously and …it is of concern that a long- standing officer has been alleged to have been involved in this,” Mr Mills said.

The ATO was conducting an internal investigation into four officials into whether or not they looked at the material they were unauthorised to do so.

“If you are an officer within the ATO, you have access to those matters only to which you actually are required for the purposes of your job. If you seek to obtain information which is outside that scope, you actually are in breach of the code of conduct,” he said.

AFP Deputy Commissioner Leanne Close answers a question during a press conference in Sydney on Thursday, May 18, 2017. (AAP)AAP

Ms Close said it appears Mr Cranston’s son has asked him to access some information.

“We don’t believe that at this point that he had any knowledge of the actual conspiracy and the defrauding,” she said.

Assets seized in the past two days by the AFP include 25 motor vehicles – luxury, vintage and racing vehicles – 18 residential properties, 12 motorbikes, in excess of 100 bank accounts and share trading accounts, two aircraft.

firearms and jewellery, artwork, vintage wines and at least $1 million located in a safety deposit box.

Adam Cranston, 30, is due to face Sydney’s Central Local Court on Thursday morning charged with conspiracy to defraud the commonwealth, while his sister is due to face a Sydney court on June 13.

Adam was arrested at Bondi while his sister was arrested in Picton during 27 raids on homes and businesses across Sydney on Wednesday.

A further six search warrants will be executed on Thursday, said the AFP.

Federal Labor’s Chris Bowen said: “Of course it’s a disturbing case but the courts should be allowed to do their job; the course of justice and law should be allowed to proceed without political commentary.”

AFP officers make their arrests during the raid

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Former FBI chief Mueller to probe Trump

The US Justice Department, in the face of rising pressure from Capitol Hill, has named former FBI chief Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election and possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

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The move followed a week in which the White House was thrown into uproar after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.

Democrats and some of the president’s fellow Republicans had demanded an independent probe of whether Russia tried to sway the outcome of November’s election in favour of Trump and against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Trump, whose anger over the allegations has grown in recent weeks, took the news calmly and used it to rally his team to unite, move on and refocus on his stalled agenda, a senior White House official said.

“We are all in this together,” Trump told his team, the official said.

Trump said in a statement after the Justice Department announcement he looked forward to a quick resolution.

“As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know – there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity,” he said.

Mueller said in a statement tweeted by CBS News: “I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability.”

Trump, who said in a speech earlier on Wednesday that no politician in history “has been treated worse or more unfairly,” has long bristled at the notion that Russia played any role in his election victory.

The Russia issue has, however, clouded his early months in office.

Moscow has denied the conclusion by US intelligence agencies that it meddled in the campaign.

Pressure on the White House intensified after Trump fired Comey, who had been leading a federal probe into the matter, and allegations that Trump had asked Comey to end the FBI investigation into ties between Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and Russia.

That raised questions about whether the president improperly attempted to interfere with a federal investigation.

The issue spilled over onto Wall Street on Wednesday, where the S&P 500 and the Dow had their biggest one-day declines since September as investor hopes for tax cuts and other pro-business policies faded amid the political tumult.

The Justice Department announcement came after the market close.

“My decision (to appoint a special counsel) is not the finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. I have made no such determination,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a statement announcing the special counsel.

“I determined that a special counsel is necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome,” he said.

Trump heard about Mueller’s appointment from his White House lawyer Don McGahn about 25 minutes before it was made public, the senior White House official said.

Trump assembled his inner circle in the Oval Office – Vice President Mike Pence, chief of staff Reince Preibus, economic adviser Gary Cohn, senior strategist Steve Bannon, and others – and gave them a pep talk, dictating the statement that was soon released.

Trump told them the appointment would allow them to refer questions to Mueller, giving them space to focus on policies such as tax reform.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill generally welcomed the Justice Department action and praised Mueller for his integrity, but House and Senate Republican leaders said they would go on with their own investigations of the Russia matter.

“A special counsel is very much needed in this situation and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein has done the right thing,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.

Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said he was confident Mueller “will conduct a thorough and fair investigation.”

Mueller, 72, was decorated as a Marine Corps officer during the Vietnam War. A former federal prosecutor, he is known for his tough, no-nonsense managerial style. Appointed by Republican President George W Bush, he became FBI director one week before the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Mueller was credited with transforming the FBI, putting more resources into counterterrorism investigations and improving its cooperation with other US government agencies.

WA govt considers housing investor levy

Applying a $270 levy on West Australian investment properties through water rates would break a Labor election promise not to introduce new taxes, the state opposition says.

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The state state government is considering applying the levy to investment properties with a gross rental value of $24,000 or more in an attempt to repair the budget.

But Opposition Leader Mike Nahan said if Labor went ahead with the idea it would be a “broken promise, without doubt”.

“In the election, the (now) premier and the treasurer repeatedly said no new taxes after they made, of course, the commitment to a tax on foreign investment on residential properties,” he told reporters on Thursday.

“This would be a tax on some of the lowest income people in the state … it will be passed on to renters.”

Treasurer Ben Wyatt said the levy was just one proposal put forward and the government was still making decisions about cost recovery and savings measures.

“I’m tyring to come up with a way forward that minimises the impact on the most vulnerable,” he told reporters.

But Mr Wyatt could not say how much money would be raised if the levy was implemented.

He indicated the state budget, to be handed down in September, would have a range of fee and charge increases but they would be announced beforehand because they needed to be implemented by July 1.

It comes after the state government announced on Wednesday it was slashing the $5000 boost to the first-home buyer’s grant six months early, with the grant dropping back to $10,000 after June 30.

One of WA’s largest home builders, Dale Alcock, said on Thursday that Labor had inherited a bad set of books and needed to make adjustments.

“I accept that we’ve all got to pull our weight but we’re not the only industry, and the construction and property market hasn’t been doing it great over the last two to three years,” he told 6PR radio.

Mr Alcock said the mining sector was “still producing pretty good profits” as opposed to the property and construction industry.

He said it all came back to the GST imbalance and WA was being “too civil” about it and people should be “marching in the street”.

Treasurer lays down challenge to big banks

The federal treasurer has urged at least one of Australia’s five big banks to break ranks and declare that they will not pass a new levy onto customers, in the hope the others may follow.

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Scott Morrison accused Westpac, NAB, ANZ, Commonwealth Bank and Macquarie of “having a lend of people” over the $6.2 billion, four-year tax, and said they could afford to wear the cost.

He told reporters in Brisbane that the first bank to break ranks and absorb the new tax will get a lot of support from Australians.

“And if the other banks don’t want to follow them, then I’d be following the bank that is the first to move.”

Consumer watchdog chief Rod Sims has assembled a surveillance squad to work out how the banks calculate fees and charges on home mortgages to try and monitor whether the levy is unfairly passed on.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will be given access to confidential bank emails, internal reports and other documents, and also have the power to hold compulsory hearings under oath.

“We don’t have the power to stop the banks doing anything but the fact we’re looking and have an obligation to report publicly will have an effect on their behaviour,” Mr Sims told ABC radio.

But federal Labor leader Bill Shorten said giving extra money to the watchdog to track the levy was a useless gesture because even the ACCC admitted it had no teeth.

He called on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to explain to Australians exactly how much they will pay as a result of the new tax.

“What they need is a banking royal commission and Malcolm Turnbull’s too weak to give it to them” Mr Shorten said.

Labor has also accused the government of policy-on-the-run with apparent indecision about whether the levy will be imposed on foreign banks.

It followed comments by the treasurer’s assistant minister, Michael Sukkar, that he would not rule in or rule out extending the measure.

“In the next sitting fortnight you will see the legislation that has been well thought through and, as I’ve said, any good ideas along the way we will look at,” he told Sky News.

Meanwhile, Mr Morrison downplayed complaints from the big banks about having to sign a confidentiality agreement over legislation for the levy.

Australian Bankers’ Association chief Anna Bligh claims the government is going to extraordinary lengths to keep the tax hidden from those most affected by it.

“A bad tax has now become a secret tax,” she said.

But the treasurer said it was not an irregular practice, noting something similar was done for its multinational tax avoidance and diverted profits tax legislation.

“It’ll ensure that we’re able to work through the issues that we have, which are very minimal, so the legislation can be introduced on time,” Mr Morrison said.

“These are sensitive matters.”

Labor wants the draft legislation to be made public, with Mr Shorten accusing the prime minister of colluding with the banks about how the levy will work.