By Lincoln Feast
Sydney - Australia's richest person Gina Rinehart lost an appeal for a confidential court hearing over the handling of a multi-billion family trust, pitting her in open court against three of her children over an empire started by her mining pioneer father.
Rinehart had argued that under an agreement reached by the family in 2006 and 2007, the dispute should be settled through private arbitration or mediation. However, the New South Wales Court of Appeal on Friday ruled the dispute was not covered by that agreement and ordered Rinehart to pay court costs.
An only child with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $18 billion, Rinehart is battling her three eldest children who want her removed as trustee of a family trust, the latest saga in a family soap opera that has been played out in Australian media since before she was born.
Rinehart's father Lang Hancock, a pioneer miner credited with opening up the dry and sparsely populated Pilbara iron ore region in Australia's Outback in the middle of the last century, schooled her in mining from a young age, crisscrossing the vast area in small aircraft.
But her children John Hancock, Hope Welker and Bianca Rinehart - launched a claim last September alleging serious misconduct in dealing with the trust by changing the vesting date without their approval, pressuring them to accept changes in operations and not providing them with information they sought.
Rinehart's youngest daughter Ginia Rinehart is siding with her mother, saying the case was motivated by the greed of her siblings.
Rinehart lost a bid in March to keep the case out of the public eye.
The trust owns almost a quarter of Hancock Prospecting Pty Ltd, one of the world's largest privately-owned iron ore mining companies. Hancock Prospecting, majority owned by Rinehart, is a partner with Rio Tinto in the massive Hope Downs iron ore project in the Pilbara and owns a number of other mining assets.
Japan's Marubeni Corp, Korean steelmaker POSCO and shipbuilder STX Corp agreed to buy 30 percent of Hancock's Roy Hills Iron ore project for A$3.5 billion ($3.6 billion), valuing the project at almost A$12 billion.
In court documents, Rinehart said she was acting within her rights as trustee and her decision to change the vesting date of the trust prevented beneficiaries from being bankrupted by capital gains tax obligations.
The three children did not have the “requisite capacity or skill, nor the knowledge, experience, judgement or responsible work ethic” to run the trust, she added.
Media shy Rinehart did not return calls for comment on the court decision on Friday. In February, she increased a stake in Australian newspaper publisher Fairfax Media Ltd. in a move hailed as savvy and well timed.
Rinehart spent some of her early years in the infamous Western Australia town of Wittenoom where her father established an asbestos mining industry. After a number of deaths linked to asbestos poisoning long after Hancock sold out, Wittenoom was abandoned from the late 1970s, shut off from the national power grid and scrubbed from maps and signposts.
Rinehart boarded at a girls college in Perth and was mentored by her father in the mining business.
After the death of her mother to cancer, Rinehart's father, then in his mid-70s, married Rose Lacson (now Porteous), a former maid from the Philippines 39 years his junior.
His daughter did not approve of the relationship and was ousted as a director from the family firm for five years.
Lang Hancock's death in 1992 sparked an escalation in the battle between Rinehart and Porteous over the family fortune that took 14 years to resolve. - Reuters