Former Ipswich mayor Paul Pisasale has been found guilty of attempting to extort thousands of dollars from the former partner of a Brisbane escort.
Pisasale, who admitted to impersonating a private investigator to pursue Sydney taxi driver Xin Li for up to $10,000 on behalf of his co-accused Yutian Li, had pleaded not guilty to two counts of extortion on the basis he honestly believed the woman was lawfully entitled to the money.
It is a spectacular fall from grace for one of Queensland’s longest-serving and popular mayors, coming undone for being what his lawyer called a “sucker for a damsel in distress”.
Yutian Li, who also faced two counts of extortion was found guilty, while Ipswich lawyer Cameron McKenzie was found guilty of one count for sending a letter of demand to Xin Li.
It took the jury approximately eight hours to reach its verdict.
Pisasale and Yutian Li both appeared emotionless while their verdict was handed down, while McKenzie hung his head in his hands and seemed to be in disbelief, shaking his head during the prosecution’s sentencing submissions.
Over the course of the seven-day trial, the court heard Pisasale came to know Yutian Li for only a short time, after meeting through an escort service massage, which included sexual services.
But during evidence Pisasale told the District Court they struck up a friendship and Yutian Li confided in him about her relationship breakdown with Xin Li, saying he had lied to her about being married, and she had spent thousands of dollars to uproot her life to come to Australia.
He testified that his attempts to extract money from Xin Li were to reimburse her for her losses, and believed Xin Li owed her the cost of a private investigation that uncovered the truth about his marriage to another woman.
But in closing statements, the Crown said there was no evidence of any investigation and it was clear Yutian Li wanted to stay in Australia, and Xin Li was a source of income to make that happen.
“It seems she didn’t want to work as an escort any longer, or at the very least Pisasale didn’t want her to have to work as an escort any longer,” Crown prosecutor Sarah Farnden told the jury on Monday.
Ms Farnden said even if they had had the “best intentions”, it did not excuse them from breaking the law.
She said Pisasale’s non-responsive answers on the witness stand proved he was simply trying to “sell his agenda” like the “politician he was”.
“In true politician style, what he did was avoid giving the answer that was unfavourable to the position that he wanted to adopt,” Ms Farnden told the jury.
But Judge Brad Farr directed the jury to disregard that comment by the Crown, saying it had no relevance to the case.
During closing submissions, McKenzie’s barrister Isaac Munsie said his client had always fully cooperated with investigators, and had honestly believed there was money outstanding that was owed to Yutian Li.
It was not disputed that McKenzie sent a letter of demand to Xin Li for the money, but he had done so “without an intention to defraud”, the court heard.
In Yutian Li’s defence, barrister Joshua Fenton said there were two scenarios in relation to her involvement — the case of a heartbroken woman who was forced to sell her body in an awful trade, poured her heart out to a man in broken English and was misunderstood, or that she was at the centre of a conspiracy.
“It’s much more likely that this was simply a mistake,” Mr Fenton told the court.
“This is not a conspiracy, members of the jury, this is a mistake.”
Mr Fenton referenced a phone call between Pisasale and Brisbane barrister Sam Di Carlo where Pisasale was heard saying: “The first night I f***ed her she was real good but she was so naive mate … she’s in the wrong trade … she’s just too nice.”
“She was a naive person who poured her heart out to a Good Samaritan and she got misinterpreted,” Mr Fenton told the jury.
During sentencing submissions, Ms Farnden said the jury clearly rejected the defence that there was an “honest claim of right” to this money, and that Xin Li was simply just a source of income for Yutian Li.
She said the pretence of Pisasale being a private investigator gave an appearance that their claim was legitimate, which was made more serious by the letter McKenzie sent on his firm’s letterhead under his hand as a lawyer.
“Their aim was to not make it look like it was an extortion,” Ms Farnden said.
On Friday, Pisasale told the court he had not known impersonating a private investigator was illegal, but admitted he “could’ve found a smarter way” of dealing with the situation.
Pisasale, who is still married and living with his wife in Ipswich, resigned as mayor wearing a hospital gown and slippers in June 2017.
He announced his resignation at hospital, where he was being treated for multiple sclerosis, a day after the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) searched his office and home.
The 67-year old, who was once dubbed “Mr Ipswich”, was first elected to council in March 1991, and had four terms as mayor.
He won the 2016 Ipswich City Council election with more than 80 per cent of the vote.