Contested fraud claims at Frankston-based Indigenous land council

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Two former leaders of a Frankston-based Indigenous land council are accused of an alleged fraud totalling more than $150,000 amid an acrimonious dispute over the running of the organisation.

Hundreds of pages of documents from the Bunurong Land Council, obtained by The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, highlight systemic issues around allegations of mismanagement and corruption, which have been strongly denied by the two former leaders. There are also contested allegations that backdated employment contracts were created to try to hide the alleged fraud.

Former Bunurong Land Council employees Robert Ogden and Dan Turnbull deny allegations that arose from an investigation by a forensic accounting firm.Credit: Rebecca Hallas

The 300-plus members of the Bunurong Land Council are largely descendants of a small group of Bunurong/Boon Wurrung women kidnapped by sealers in 1833. Their descendants were dispersed across Australia as part of a violent early colonial displacement. Bunurong/Boon Wurrung lands extend across parts of Melbourne, the Mornington Peninsula and into Gippsland.

Bunurong Land Council received registered Aboriginal party status in 2017 under Victorian legislation. Registered Aboriginal parties are responsible for managing Aboriginal cultural heritage matters in their appointed areas, which requires developers and governments to consult them.

The Bunurong Land Council board appointed PKF Integrity, a leading forensic accounting firm, to investigate the alleged mismanagement and received briefings of its findings last year and again in February.

The key allegation is that former Bunurong heritage manager Robert Ogden and former general manager Dan Turnbull took fees of up to $5000 a week they should not have received over a one-year period up to February 2018. The fees were for attending informal meetings with property developers, archaeologists and local councils seeking advice from the land council on cultural heritage.

A 2015 March board resolution stated those meeting fees paid to Turnbull and Ogden should have been returned to the land council, although this is denied by both men.

The cache of documents obtained by this masthead includes records of pay and hours, and detailed internal correspondence.

The land council’s financial reports show it has revenue of about $8 million a year including income from the evaluation of legally mandated cultural heritage plans.

The fees at the centre of the fraud allegations are for separate meetings with stakeholders that do not have the same legal basis.

Dan Turnbull says the claims are unfounded and stem from family conflicts.Credit:

At the most recent annual meeting, there were attempts from some Bunurong Land Council members to try to stop the briefing from PKF, including from relatives of Ogden. The issues that PKF detailed have been referred to Victoria Police.

A police spokeswoman confirmed a report relating to an alleged fraud had been received and that detectives from the financial crime squad were looking into it. “The report is being assessed to determine if any offences have occurred. As the investigation is ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

Both men deny any wrongdoing. “All the evidence is I’ve done nothing outside of my contract,” Ogden said. “It’s purely political by the new board … it’s personal conflicts relating to family issues.”

Turnbull also said he had done nothing wrong. “Every payment we received was documented and was added to our contract when we received them, so it’s all completely legitimate. That’s the truth,” Turnbull said.

“There’s nothing to it. The reality is the board changes so commonly the directors that are there asking these questions at the moment were not the directors at the time.”

It is the second financial scandal to hit the Bunurong Land Council in a decade. In 2015, the Federal Court banned and fined several former executives, including Sonia Murray, from running an Aboriginal corporation for up to seven years. Turnbull played a prominent role in cleaning up that earlier mismanagement but has been implicated in the latest scandal.

“I spent basically 10 years building this organisation back up and upholding the governance, that’s what I’ve done and handed it over to mob, and they’re now using the resources to hunt and attack me,” Turnbull said.

Turnbull was the CEO of the land council from 2014 to 2022 and oversaw the organisation receiving registered Aboriginal party status from the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council in 2017.

Turnbull criticised the PKF report and said board meeting minutes were problematic and often included mistakes. Both Turnbull and Ogden said they were not interviewed by PKF about the meeting fees.

Financial records leaked from the land council show Turnbull received $71,700 that the PKF report alleges he was not entitled to while Ogden received $82,000 from early 2017 to the following year.

At the time, Turnbull and Ogden were both on salaries of about $137,000 a year, and it is alleged that part of their job was to attend meetings with authorities, developers and landholders to discuss cultural heritage issues. Ogden and Turnbull would routinely invoice the land council for an additional $550 for each meeting.

They would sometimes attend four to five meetings a day and some weeks received $5000, on top of their salaries, in fees, pay records show.

Turnbull billed for 142 meetings in the one-year period or 1404 hours, while Ogden billed them for 148 meetings or a total of 1652 hours. Ogden and Turnbull both disputed they were not entitled to the fees.

The documents also show that a forensic IT expert examined employment agreements for Ogden and Turnbull.

The agreements stated they were created in February 2017 but the IT expert found they appeared to be created in September 2017. Both Turnbull and Ogden said the agreements were legitimate and signed in February 2017.

Numerous Bunurong traditional owners and members of the land council said their repeated complaints about the handling of cultural heritage matters had not been adequately dealt with by several authorities, including the federal government’s Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations.

A spokesperson for the registrar did not comment directly on the issue of meeting fees at Bunurong Land Council. “The registrar’s position remains unchanged — we do not comment on investigations or complaints.”

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney’s office was provided with documents related to the alleged fraud earlier this year. A spokesperson said the allegations were referred to the registrar.

Registrar of Indigenous Corporations Tricia Stroud. Her organisation declined to comment on whether it was investigating.Credit:

Bunurong Land Council’s incoming chief executive, Jason King, said he was aware of the allegations against the former staff which occurred before his appointment.

“It is inappropriate for me to provide direct commentary on any ongoing police matter,” he said. “These inquiries should not overshadow the great work our staff and our members at the land council have done over the years.”

Kelly said as incoming chief executive he would ensure “appropriate corporate governance systems are in-place, internal audits undertaken and fully discharge my duty as an officer of this company to support any regulators and investigations”.

Recent attempts to hold annual meetings have descended into acrimony, with Ogden lobbying members to challenge the board in the lead up to a February 25 meeting.

A previous bid to have Ogden’s membership cancelled received support from 73 per cent of Bunurong Land Council members – just below the 75 per cent threshold required to allow this to occur.

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