Court told former CEO ‘rushed through’ $500K payout
The fraud trial of an ex-council CEO has heard he falsified meeting minutes and lied to rush a $500,000 severance payment for himself before he resigned.
Former Hope Vale Aboriginal Shire Council chief executive Lee Robertson was charged with one count of fraud in 2015 after a Crime and Corruption Commission investigation.
He had resigned from his role three years earlier.
Mr Robertson pleaded not guilty to fraudulently obtaining $500,459.20 ($303,618.28 after tax) when his trial began on Monday.
In his address to the jury on Thursday, crown prosecutor Sam Bain drew their attention to the then deputy mayor June Pearson's account, who said she raised concerns on November 15, 2012, over a resolution recorded in a meeting on September 20, 2012.
He said Ms Pearson's resolution on September 20 was that the council would accept the termination arrangement with CEO Lee Robertson subject to each councillor reviewing the deed of settlement prior to any payment being made.
He said that was not reflected in the resolution, with the minutes instead saying the council had accepted the deed of settlement agreed with Mr Robertson.
Mr Bain said Mr Robertson, who was not present in the discussion, deliberately falsified the minutes after being told the resolution upon re-entering the meeting.
"We know the defendant was the minute taker, we know that was him that wrote that in the minutes, it's simply a work of fiction," he said.
"I'd suggest he knew it was not unconditionally approved.
"Those resolutions are worlds apart, there is no way that if you're sitting there, pen at the ready being told what the resolution is … that you could have written on your paper what ultimately turns up in the unconfirmed minutes.
"It was a totally different meaning that was to the huge benefit, wasn't it to Mr Robertson."
Mr Bain said Mr Robertson then acted dishonestly and lied to the then finance officer Shannon Gibbs on September 21, 2012, by telling her the payout had been approved by the council.
"In he arrives first thing the next morning, calculations in hand telling her to process the payment," he said to the jury.
"There was a real rush and the reason there was a real rush … because he well knew that this wasn't the resolution that was passed, and council didn't approve it."
Defence barrister Peter Feeney opposed the Crown's submission that Mr Robertson had rushed to pass the payment.
"His behaviour said to be sinister of what a rush there was on the 21st boils down to this, if the deed is executed on the 7th and it requires a payment within 14 days, 14 days from the 7th is the 21st and that's when the payment is to be made and it's no simple thing," he said.
"It's somewhat unfamiliar territory for Shannon Gibbs (finance officer) and you've got his handwritten calculations where he has tried to work it out, clearly no easy thing for him either.
"Rush? No, there is a deliberation to try and get it right."
Mr Feeney explained the absence of the deed of settlement and his contract in the meeting by saying Mr Robertson had to take "a step back".
"He must adopt a hands-off attitude," he told the jury.
"He's got to take a step back from any decision made by the body where he is an important person in the administration of it.
"Imagine what submissions would have been made to you if the CEO had put the deed under the nose of the councillor and said 'this is it, read it, this is what I want'.
"You've got to appreciate that the idea of hands-off goes well beyond just leaving the room for the discussion."
Mr Bain said three former councillors who gave evidence in the trial were "highly credit worthy".
"Each one of them told you in their own words the exact same story, the same sequence of events," he said.
"There is no doubt that the deed of settlement was not there, his contract was not there, it was … perhaps the only plausible resolution to pass is that before this is finalised we will need to see what the terms are."
Mr Feeney said the witnesses gave a number of different accounts which put the prosecution's case on shaky foundations.
"The foundations of this case resting as they do upon the various witnesses have to be considered very carefully," he said.
He said the different accounts showed Ms Pearson was wrong about a number of facts and the Crown's suggestion that she had made a resolution on September 20 contradicted her statement.
"Her account (during the trial) was there was no resolution, as of the 20th of September meeting … 'there couldn't have been', she said because they didn't have the deed," he told the jury.
"But within a few months (after September 20) … she is saying there was a resolution, it was my resolution, and this was the resolution.
"She decided she had made some sort of motion and it had turned into a resolution and wanted the minutes to record that, not the fact that there was no resolution, but the resolution as amended."
He said the jury couldn't rely on the minutes as what had happened in the meeting.
"Whatever occurred in the room was understood one way by some people on the 20th of September and apparently understood a different way on the 15th of November," he said.
Mr Feeney said a statement written by former councillor Carmen Pearson on October 1, 2013, and reviewed by her on January 29 this year contradicted what she had said happened in the initial meeting.
He reminded the jury of Ms Pearson's "charade" and said Mr Robertson acted under the belief the payment had been approved.
"Carmen's account was that the mayor had said he might be entitled to some sort of extra money," Mr Feeney said.
"Well that's a long way from what she had said in 2013 and what she had read and knew to be correct on the 29th of January this year which was the mayor stated Lee was to be paid the balance of his contact owing to the work he'd done in the community.
"Eventually she was asked … did he (the mayor) say we are going to pay Lee the balance of his contract? Answer, yes."
Mr Feeney said Ms Pearson's belief, indicated in the 2013 statement, was that Mr Robertson wasn't entitled to further payment for work in the community as he hadn't done any.
He said the belief was one of the indications of disharmony among the council.
"The talk about Lee Robertson leaving Hope Vale Shire's employment began in August to the extent where the finance officer was being asked would she take the position of CEO," he said.
"It has a long lead up and a long lead up is not in circumstances where there is harmony in Hope Vale.
"Lee Robertson had been there for a long time and there were people that didn't like him."
Mr Robertson declined to give evidence.
The jury is expected to retire to consider a verdict on Friday.