Northern Territory government authorities have confirmed they are investigating allegations the former chief executive of a critical alcohol rehabilitation service in the NT town of Tennant Creek misused its resources and bullied an employee.
The allegations have been made by former staff of the Barkly Region Alcohol and Drug Abuse Advisory Group (BRADAAG) against its former chief executive Pauline Reynolds Lewis, who left the service at the end of last year.
The Indigenous corporation gets $4 million a year in government funding to provide rehabilitation, sobering up and aftercare services.
Tennant Creek, where severe alcohol issues are pervasive, has the toughest liquor restrictions of any NT town.
Ms Reynolds Lewis has denied the allegations she misused BRADAAG funds.
It is the second time in five years BRADAAG has been in the headlines.
Its former chief executive Stuart Naylor was jailed last year for defrauding BRADAAG of $250,000.
Following a series of resignations, former Barkly MLA Elliot McAdam, who led the investigation into Mr Naylor, is calling on the federal and NT governments to put BRADAAG into special administration again as it did in 2016.
“The organisation is shambolic, it’s in a state of disarray,” he said.
“I believe that the welfare, wellbeing and lives of the clients are at risk.”
A former senior member of BRADAAG’s staff has told the ABC she saw many instances where she believed Ms Reynolds Lewis, who was the organisation’s chief executive from 2017 until late last year, misused its resources.
Sara (not her real name) asked to remain anonymous.
“I saw Pauline using the credit card or came to see transactions in the monthly acquittal of the credit card, and I was suspicious that many of these transactions were for Pauline’s personal use — they were things like clothing, food, drinks and meals,” she said.
Sara claimed Ms Reynolds Lewis used BRADAAG funds to sponsor a family friend to come from England to work at the organisation in 2019.
“BRADAAG supported him with accommodation and training and study to be able to complete his duties,” she said.
“There was no need to bring somebody from England to fill a position at BRADAAG.”
She said Ms Reynolds Lewis undertook frequent travel at BRADAAG’s expense to conferences and other events that appeared “not necessary for the management of BRADAAG”.
“There were many trips for all sorts of reasons that were basically cooked up,” she claimed.
Sara said the chief executive regularly directed staff to use BRADAAG vehicles for non-work purposes, including driving her grandson from Darwin to Tennant Creek in 2018.
Four former staff have alleged to the ABC that they saw what appeared to be misuse of BRADAAG resources by Ms Reynolds Lewis.
All of the allegations about the misuse of resources were put to Ms Reynolds Lewis, who rejected them, but declined to comment on the record.
The BRADAAG board approved the travel and spending, but Sara claims they were not disputed or properly scrutinised by the board at the meetings she attended or in its minutes.
She said this appeared to be partly because the chief executive’s partner, Paul Lewis, was one of the four directors.
“Pauline had her partner on the board from the time that she started at BRADAAG,” she said.
“It wasn’t widely known that Pauline and he were dating when she came to Tennant Creek from Alice Springs, even though she told us they had bought a house together in 2017.”
Mr Lewis, who is now the husband of the former chief executive, has rejected the allegations that as a director of the board, he did not hold her to account.
“I came in before Pauline and I were partners,” he said.
Mr Lewis said he declared that he had a conflict of interest at a board meeting before the pair were married in 2021.
“The conflict of interest was documented and minuted and ORIC [Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations] would have access to that,” he said.
“Anything that required voting, I would leave the meeting, if there was any issue of conflict.”
The company Mr Lewis manages, BIZCOM, was also contracted to provide BRADAAG’s IT services and replace the existing contractor.
Mr Lewis said that did not cause a conflict of interest because “I don’t own BIZCOM, I’m the general manager”.
Asked whether he ever saw the misuse of BRADAAG’s resources by Ms Reynolds Lewis, he said he did not.
“There was never anything untoward,” he said.
“The finances of BRADAAG were better when Pauline left than when Stuart Naylor was there.
“It would be easy to prove or disprove; ORIC gets all the financials.”
Mr Lewis said he saw nothing improper about the employment of Ms Reynolds Lewis’s family friend from England.
“That is not uncommon, at BIZCOM we sponsor people with skills that we need to come out all the time,” he said.
David Curtis Junior was the chairman of BRADAAG’s board for four years until shortly after Ms Reynolds Lewis left.
He has rejected the allegation the board did not scrutinise BRADAAG’s accounts.
He said Paul Lewis and the former chief executive declared their conflict of interest a few years ago.
“The board scrutinised the financials quite heavily, often,” he said.
“They were sent out to us prior to each board meeting for us to review, and then if we had questions we could ask.
“Paul Lewis himself asked a lot of questions in regards to the finances seeking clarity.
“It was well documented that they had a relationship and it did not influence the board’s scrutiny of the financials whatsoever.”
Mr Curtis said he saw “no basis” for the allegations that Ms Reynolds Lewis misused BRADAAG’s resources.
“There was nothing untoward that I and the board saw, everything was spent in accordance with the funding agreement,” he said.
“Pauline did travel extensively in her role, but she was on other committees dealing with alcohol issues and providing information in regards to how things are in Tennant Creek, so her travel was for legitimate reasons.”
The ABC asked NT Police whether they have investigated any financial misuse allegations against Ms Reynolds Lewis and they responded that they are “investigating a complaint recently made”.
Sara claimed she saw Ms Reynolds Lewis “viciously” bullying a sobering-up shelter care worker, Here Makita, in 2019.
“What happened to Makita was very, very wrong,” she said.
Mr Makita worked at BRADAAG as a carer for 21 years.
Sara said the former chief executive told a BRADAAG all-staff morning meeting in March 2019 she had suspended Mr Makita because he refused to admit an aged care patient to the sobering-up shelter one night and a nurse had complained about that.
During Mr Makita’s suspension, Sara said the chief executive’s “pursuing of him was gruelling and relentless, using many letters, teleconferences and internal investigations of Here’s character”.
“Pauline spent a large amount of money with the BRADAAG legal team to pursue him to have him sacked from his job,” Sara said.
“After many months, and lots of accusations, there was not enough evidence to sack him.”
Mr Makita died during a fire in his home in Tennant Creek in June 2019.
Sara gave a detailed statement on her bullying allegations to a WorkCover investigation in August 2019 into Mr Makita’s death, by insurer TIO.
She said she understands there was no finding of bullying against Mr Makita.
The Work Health Safety Act regulator NT WorkSafe said: “These investigation reports are private to the insurer who initiated them.
“WorkSafe is unable to disclose information on a specific worker’s claim without the worker, or next of kin’s consent.”
Mr Curtis Junior said the board was told the investigation found no bullying of Mr Makita.
“There was no bullying to be found, the workplace investigation that took place was in accordance with all the policies in place for BRADAAG,” he said.
Four former BRADAAG staff have told the ABC Mr Makita was badly bullied.
Former rehabilitation worker Judith Campbell said she was aware her friend was being bullied and was devastated when he died.
“I was in shock and having nightmares, thinking that I should have done something,” she said.
“I just couldn’t believe it, Makita lived in Tennant Creek for 20 years, he built up a lot of friendships, a lot of people respected him.”
NT WorkSafe has told the ABC that it has now started an investigation.
“The regulator is aware of the allegations of bullying in BRADAAG,” it said.
“An investigation has commenced to determine if there have been any breaches of the Work Health and Safety Act.”
Seven former staff have told the ABC bullying by Ms Reynolds Lewis caused them mental harm and reduced the effectiveness of BRADAAG’s services.
Sara said: “Many staff were bullied, nobody felt safe, it was a very, very difficult environment to work in”.
“The bullying also included electronic monitoring; the CEO regularly monitored staff emails and their computer use.
“It was a normal occurrence for many people to be dismissed, or leave because of the bullying.”
Rehab worker Judith Campbell claimed she left BRADAAG in 2017 because she was bullied by Ms Reynolds Lewis after she alerted clients that there were complaint forms they could fill in.
Former rehab, sobering up shelter and outreach program manager Billy Walker said he left in 2018, several months after the chief executive announced at an all-staff meeting that he was to be demoted to a much more junior position.
All of the bullying allegations were put to Ms Reynolds Lewis, who denied them, but declined to comment on the record.
Paul Lewis said he was not aware of any bullying by Ms Reynolds Lewis.
“There was a lot of sadness and bitterness when Pauline left, I know there were a couple of disgruntled people,” he said.
BRADAAG’s regulator, the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC), carried out an examination “to review the standards of corporate governance and financial management of the corporation, and whether the directors have complied with their obligations” from May to July last year.
It produced a brief report which concluded BRADAAG’s “corporate governance” was “generally sound”.
Sara said it should look deeper.
“ORIC does selection checking where they randomly pull out an invoice and a receipt and see if they match,” she said.
“The invoice might be for groceries, they don’t look at what kinds of things were bought and which program it was coded to.
“Unless there is a special administration, or some sort of detailed investigation of spending, this will continue to haunt BRADAAG and the people of Tennant Creek.”
Mr Curtis Junior said the ORIC investigation of BRADAAG appeared thorough.
“They came in for four days, the organisation had to supply over 900 documents for that review, including financial documents and BRADAAG passed with flying colours both in governance and compliance,” he said.
In December, the new BRADAAG board, who had been appointed in October 2021, after Pauline Reynolds Lewis left, all resigned.
Elliot McAdam then wrote to both ORIC and the NT Health Minister in December asking for an investigation into the organisation.
“Over the past four years the governance of BRADAAG has not improved one bit, its level of support to its clients has got worse, its management practices deserve the attention of a forensic audit,” he said.
“Nothing will change unless you take urgent action by immediately appointing an administrator with the appropriate skills to manage BRADAAG until this sorry mess is resolved.”
He received a reply from the Health Department, saying it had been asked by the Minister “to ensure continuity of services” at BRADAAG.
Mr McAdam said five more staff resignations from BRADAAG within the last month have made him worried it may now lack enough qualified staff to properly care for vulnerable clients.
“There appears to be a fobbing off on the part of government agencies, including ORIC and the Department of Health, to thoroughly investigate,” he said.
BRADAAG’s current chief executive Samun KC, who was appointed in October 2021, said he did not want to be interviewed or by provide any comment.
When the ABC asked ORIC if it will investigate or consider putting BRADAAG into administration, it said: “If anyone has evidence to support allegations of financial mismanagement or wrongdoing we strongly encourage them to provide this”.
The NT Health Minister Natasha Fyles said: “Those community members who are raising those concerns need to provide that evidence to ORIC”.
Ms Fyles said her department has monitored BRADAAG’s performance “to ensure the community’s needs are being served”.
She said she was concerned to hear that the BRADAAG board had “resigned simultaneously” and since then the Health Department “has worked closely with the new CEO to ensure governance structures remain in place”.
The National Indigenous Australians Agency, which funds BRADAAG’s aftercare services, also encouraged anyone with evidence to contact it.
Source: ABC News