By ERWIN CHLANDA
Serious questions about travel allowances for board members and the use of a credit card by former CEO Pat Miller will cast a shadow over tomorrow’s AGM of the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (CAALAS).
These issues were brought to light in a report ordered by the Federal Attorney General’s Department (AGD – which examined all Australian Aboriginal legal aid services), the major funding body of CAALAS.
The inquiry found no problems with the provision of legal services , says Principal Legal Officer Mark O’Reilly who is also acting as CEO following the controversial departure of Ms Miller (see earlier Alice Springs News Online reports).
Mr O’Reilly fielded questions today:-
REPORT: Travel payments of more than $70,000 over three years to board members could not be demonstrated as “being relevant to CAALAS’s affairs”. The service needs to ensure that board member travel is necessary to facilitate and further the delivery of the organisation’s services. There were potential duplicate payments (where board members have been paid an allowance and also had their accommodation costs paid directly). Refunds should be made, where applicable. There were no records of prior approval for travel payments. There was no supporting detailed documentation for any of the 27 travel expenses tested (the report involved “sampling transactions and selected reports rather than looking at all information that may exist”).
CAALAS: We are working with McGrath Nichol and the AGD to set up compliant processes.
REPORT: Staff loans are a poor practice – including one self-approved by former CEO Pat Miller.
CAALAS: This has now been addressed by the board, disallowing the practice.
REPORT: Some credit card expenses by Ms Miller “do not appear to have been incurred in carrying out the services for which Commonwealth funding has been approved”. They included “travel and rent expenses relating to individuals who do not appear to be CAALAS employees or the transaction is of an unidentified nature” and “what appear to be personal expenses, e.g. jewellery, luggage merchandise”.
CAALAS: This was a concern in the report. We’re working with McGrath Nicol to provide a response. We’re continuing to resolve the issues. Practices have now been implemented to ensure proper accountability.
REPORT: Personnel files for Ms Miller and her son, Allan, the Administration Manager, could not be found.
CAALAS: These files were not available when the “health check” was made but they were and are in CAALAS’s possession, and there was no concern about how the file system was managed.
REPORT: No accurate records and accounts (including service contracts, receipts, proof of purchases and invoices) were kept for a wide range of transactions.
CAALAS: Nothing suggests the systemic misuse of funds. Revised new practices are now in place, assisted by an accountant. There were concerns but no major issues.
REPORT: It appears that the board is lacking some key skills that would assist in effectively governing the organisation. Meeting minutes are inadequate, there was little record of financial matters, the chairperson was stood down, the board failed to ensure the CEO “effectively managed the financial administration of CAALAS”.
CAALAS: The board is the representative of the local Aboriginal community. The constitution allows bringing in outside consultants in areas of expertise. Of course there is ready access to legal advice. There is ongoing governance training. Members have their individual expertise.
Says Mr O’Reilly: “The reason for our existence s to provide legal services and we do that well. In order to do that we need to have effective operation procedures including financial controls, and overwhelmingly we do.”
CAALAS has 40 employees and an annual budget of about $6m. Asked what the cost of the services provided would be if charged at the Supreme Court scale, Mr O’Reilly said this had not been calculated but it would be a great deal more.
The constitution requires that four of the eight board members resign tomorrow, but they can nominate for re-election.
The AGM will also vote on a new constitution, drafted in the wake of the AGD report, about which the News is reporting exclusively.
The new board will go in search of a new CEO, and the report urged the organisation should appoint “a strong Chairperson with experience in leading a similar scale organisation”.
IMAGES from CAALAS annual report: Taking the law bush at Haasts Bluff (top) and Areyonga (above).
By ERWIN CHLANDA