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