Couple's rift exposes years of corruption

Sunday Age: October 16, 2005

Steve Hanley: the former CEO of Papunya, west of Alice Springs, maintains that his wife, Alison Anderson, is guilty of diverting millions of dollars of council funds to community members over 10 years.
Photo: Steve Strike

Steve Hanley's estranged wife, Alison Anderson, has been cleared by an inquiry into the Northern Territory community of Papunya. But, as he tells Russell Skelton, he is far from pleased.

A DISPUTE between a central figure in a Federal Government inquiry into financial mismanagement at a remote Aboriginal community and his estranged wife has exposed a litany of corrupt practices that robbed the impoverished community of millions of dollars for more than 10 years.

The dispute centres on Steve Hanley, who was the acting chief executive officer at the community of Papunya, 280 kilometres west of Alice Springs, and Alison Anderson, a former Papunya CEO and ATSIC commissioner.

The disagreement, apparently sparked by Mr Hanley's refusal to stay in Perth at his wife's insistence to avoid interrogation by federal investigators, has been dismissed by officials of Chief Minister Clare Martin's Northern Territory Labor Government in an attempt to avoid a damaging public controversy.

Ms Anderson won the seat of MacDonnell for Labor in this year's NT elections in a landslide. She has been heavily promoted by Ms Martin as a high-profile indigenous MP with a promising future.

This week, NT police cleared Ms Anderson of allegations that she bribed Papunya elders with TVs, whitegoods and other household items to secure their support in the election. Her husband had earlier told police that he arranged the distribution of goods on her behalf.

But the Papunya controversy appears far from over.

In an interview with The Sunday Age, Mr Hanley has detailed for the first time how hundreds of thousands of dollars — possibly millions — was siphoned from the community social club over 10 years to benefit a select few, while the tiny community of 350 struggled to cope with chronic substance abuse and health problems.

Inquiries by The Sunday Age indicate that NT officials attempted to cover up the recent whitegoods bribery allegations and that the subsequent police inquiry may have been compromised.

Mr Hanley, who was acting CEO for almost five years, said the social club slush fund — accumulated by raising prices 70 per cent in the general store — was used to buy an estimated 90 vehicles, including top-of-the-range four-wheel drives.

"From 1992 until now I reckon $4.5 million was spent on cars. One member of the council received $180,000 worth of cars. On a trip to Melbourne I bought 32 of them," Mr Hanley, 50, said.

Mr Hanley claimed vehicles bought by the council were distributed at the direction of Ms Anderson in what he said was "influence peddling" to further her political career. "She had been the CEO since 1985 — she decided what was what," he said.

Mr Hanley's claims about the diversion of funds are backed by the community's former accountant of 30 years, Peter Vroom, who confirmed that at least 60 cars were bought in recent years from funds diverted from the Papunya Social Club to the council.

The Federal Government investigation also identified a large unexplained exodus of funds — more than $513,000 — from the social club from 2003 to 2004 when Mr Hanley was CEO. "When I was CEO I tried to stop the practice, but Alison told me this is blackfellas' money and I should shut up," he claimed.

Federal Government investigators did not ever question Mr Hanley over $250,000 in missing work-for-the-dole payments, which he told The Sunday Age he knows nothing about.

Inquiries also reveal that the rorting was not confined to the purchase of vehicles.

Other instances of underhand practices included:

■The purchase of two $40,000 motor vehicles so two community elders could drive to a conference and claim more than $5000 in petrol and car allowances. Although the council bought the cars, the elders claimed them as their own.

■Excessive payments of travel allowances to council officials that in some cases almost doubled their income. Federal Government auditors found that although the CEO's position was fixed at about $50,000 a year, in 2003 travel expenses of $39,000 were claimed and in 2004 a further $15,000 was claimed.

■Double and triple-dipping of petrol and car allowances between the council and indigenous organisations.

■The provision of free fuel and new housing to favoured community members, including some of the Anderson family.

■Attempts to claim payment for work never done. In one instance Mr Hanley's daughter attempted to claim pay for working in the general store when she was in Alice Springs. The Sunday Age has obtained a copy of her time sheet.

The rorting of accounts took place while Mr Hanley and Ms Anderson managed the community's finances. Ms Anderson was CEO of Papunya from 1985 until 2000, when she handed the position over to Mr Hanley.

Papunya, once a centre for desert painting, has been battling some of the worst rates of substance abuse in regional Australia for more than a decade.

Various council administrations have been unable to establish an effective anti-petrol-sniffing program despite the free flow of money into the community.

Last year, World Vision quit Papunya after a bitter dispute with another acting CEO, Scotty McConnell, a close friend of Ms Anderson's.

A recent auditor's report by accounting firm Deloittes found that $1.2 million in assets — including many motor vehicles — had been written off and could not be located. Local government records also revealed that in two years alone, more than 40 council vehicles had been written off.

A spokeswoman for Ms Anderson refused to comment on Mr Hanley's claims, saying Ms Anderson had no formal positions at the Papunya community and nothing to do with its management. "I don't know why you are asking her questions, it's got nothing to do with her," the spokeswoman said.

Doubts remain about the thoroughness of the police investigation into Mr Hanley's whitegoods bribery allegations. Although Mr Hanley admitted to distributing the goods on his wife's instructions, police did not interview the alleged recipients until weeks later.

During these weeks Ms Anderson had free access to Papunya as a traditional owner. When the recipients were interviewed it was during a week when Ms Anderson hosted a rare visit to Papunya by NT Police Minister Paul Henderson.

A long-term resident who asked not to be identified said: "The VIP visit was a big Alison Anderson benefit. The unstated message was: we back her 100 per cent, so don't cause any trouble. The investigation never went anywhere after that."

A spokesman for Mr Henderson denied the investigation had been compromised by the minister's visit. "The police act independently of the government, we cannot and don't tell them how to conduct their investigations," the spokesman said.

During the week, Ms Anderson released a statement on Mr Hanley's bribery allegations: "I have always said I have done nothing wrong and the findings of the police investigation have proved it once and for all.

"The police investigation has revealed these allegations for what they are — an attempt to damage my reputation and hurt me by a former partner during a difficult relationship break-up."

Inquiries on the white-goods bribery allegations reveal evidence of an attempted cover-up by the NT Government.

A document obtained by The Sunday Age shows that an official in the NT Government apparently drafted a letter for Mr Hanley to sign saying he had sold the goods legitimately and had not given them to elders as he later claimed to police.

A draft of the letter, dated September 1 and addressed to Allan Van Zyl in the policy division of the NT Department of Justice, was faxed to Mr Hanley on the same day. Even though Mr Hanley had not signed the draft, it already had scrawled on it Mr Van Zyl's handwritten notation saying: "No further action required."

Mr Hanley said the letter had been forwarded to him by a "friend" who had been talking to Mr Van Zyl and who told him to sign the letter so the issue of the missing goods would "go away".

Mr Van Zyl has refused to comment to the media.

Former accountant Mr Vroom, whose services were recently terminated by the council, described the lack of proper governance at Papunya as a "disgrace" because local government officials never enforced regulations.

"They would issue non-compliance notices and do nothing about it. No matter what government is in power these communities are untouchable. Nobody wants to know about them."

Mr Vroom, who describes Mr Hanley as a flawed administrator not equipped for the CEO's position, said the real power at Papunya was not Mr Hanley, but Ms Anderson.

"Even though she holds no formal positions out there she runs the show, make no mistake about that. She is always out there telling them what to do," he said.

Apart from auditing the council and social club accounts, Mr Vroom was the acting CEO after Mr Hanley quit late last year and is understood to have clashed with Ms Anderson.

On the rorting of the social club accounts, Mr Hanley said the way it worked was simple. "Alison would tell the social club to make a donation to the council and that money would be used by the council to buy a car for whoever she nominated. Alison had a political career to look after and this is how she went about it," he said.

"No records were ever kept of who owned the cars."

Russell Skelton, Sunday Age