Legal scum, illegal scum. What's the difference?


Mr Sin: The Abe Saffron Dossier

By Tony Reeves

Allen and Unwin, 2007

296 pages, $24.95

Sydney City Council commemorates prominent historical figures with small pavement plaques around the city. Abe Saffron, one of the most notorious NSW criminals, has one in Kings Cross, his old hunting ground. It describes him as: "Publican and nightclub owner from 1946, convictions and court appearances from 1938. Friends in high places."

Drawing on newspaper files and some personal interviews Tony Reeves exposes exactly what is meant by "friends in high places". Saffron's drug, gambling and prostitution empire was protected by an intricate web of corrupt payments and blackmail that extended into the highest levels of Australian government.

Saffron's great personality quirk was that to the very end of his life he saw himself as a legitimate businessperson and he sued anyone who said differently — or had them murdered.

That Saffron saw himself that way is hardly surprising. He was best mates with the late Sir Peter Abeles, of TNT transport. Reeves explains that Abeles moved "large quantities of illegal drugs around Australia and the world, and was closely associated with the notorious Nugan Hand Bank". Reeves also details Abeles' connections with the US mafia and other shady networks.

Saffron's great power was based on a couple of special brothels that he operated granting free services to the rich and the powerful. All tastes were catered for: under-aged sex, whips and orgies.

However, the rooms were fitted with mirrors through which photographs were taken. Saffron meticulously kept folders of the photos complete with dates and the names and ages of the prostitutes involved.

These folders opened doors for Saffron and Abeles as they cut a swathe through Sydney. Special deals opened up public land and other public services. Meanwhile the police seemed to never lay a glove on Saffron no matter how brazen his crimes.

Labor attorney-general Lionel Murphy was blackmailed and corrupted by Saffron, Reeves explains. Murphy protected Saffron in return with some extraordinary interventions that facilitated Saffron's drug dealings, Reeves argues.

Reeves' research meticulously shows how these corrupt networks operated. Unfortunately, apart from demonstrating that Saffron was connected with the CIA-front Nugan Hand Bank, which funnelled money to US-backed contra operations during the 1970s, the CIA link is not developed.

Neither is Saffron's connection with Mossad, the Israeli secret service. Thugs employed by Saffron were rumoured to have been "loaned" to Mossad for operations in Africa in the late 1970s and early '80s.

Little wonder that Saffron believed that he was a legitimate businessman. His vile life shows that the line between legal and illegal business under capitalism is simply nonexistent.