Former council CEO fights $500k severance fraud charge
The trial of an ex-council CEO accused of arranging a $500,000 severance payment for himself before he resigned has heard councillors thought the amount could come back to bite them.
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 (before tax) when his trial began on Monday.
Former councillors Carmen Rose Pearson, Dwayne Richard Bowen and Christopher Woibo gave evidence in the Maroochydore District Court on Wednesday along with former Hope Vale Aboriginal Shire Council's then acting CEO Ross Higgins and human resource manager Ivan Hagemeyer.
Crown prosecutor Sam Bain questioned Ms Pearson about a meeting on September 20, 2012, when councillors were informed about Mr Robertson's departure and considered the payment after he had left the room.
"The mayor stated that Lee was ill and he was going to resign and that he thought he might be entitled to some form of extra money for his work done in the community so we had a little chat about it and we came up with the resolution to not make any payments until we see his contract and deed of settlement," Ms Pearson said.
Mr Bain said councillors weren't asked to confirm the resolutions from September 20 until November 15, 2012, when deputy mayor June Pearson raised concerns with the resolution regarding the deed of settlement with the CEO.
"She (Ms Pearson) indicated the resolution recorded did not reflect what she had said," he said.
"Her resolution was 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."
Mr Bain drew Ms Pearson's attention to meeting minutes and she said she agreed with the concerns and seconded the motion.
Mr Bain said the minutes showed a copy of the deed of settlement was to be made available for each councillor to read and asked Ms Pearson if she had seen the document.
"I don't remember seeing the deed of settlement … I can't remember," she said.
Defence barrister Peter Feeney said a statement written by Ms Pearson on October 1, 2013, and reviewed by her on January 29 this year contradicted what she had said happened in the initial meeting.
"After Lee left the meeting, we discussed his payout," Mr Feeney read from Ms Pearson's statement.
"The mayor stated that Lee was to be paid the balance of his contract owing to the work he had done within the community," Mr Feeney also read from the statement.
"You understood that the amount to be paid was the balance of his contract as the mayor was proposing," he said to Ms Pearson.
"You thought your statement was correct and the contents were correct on the 29 January, but you said a different thing here today … why?"
"Yes, I was a bit confused but yes, I think he said that," Ms Pearson replied.
Mr Feeney said the statement also said Ms Pearson didn't believe Mr Robertson was entitled to anything other than a payout to the date of his resignation as she thought he had not done any extra work within the community.
Councillor of four years Mr Bowen said he briefly read the deed of release in September with Mr Robertson, Shannon Gibbs and Greg McLean.
"I thought it would be tabled at the next council meeting," he said.
"Upon witnessing it … Shannon mentioned that it was too much, and it would probably come back and bite us on the arse."
He said she was reluctant to sign it.
Mr Bowen agreed with Mr Bain that prior to considering matters councillors would be provided documents that would help them properly decide and said they were not given the deed of settlement or Mr Robertson's contract on September 20 when deciding on the matter.
He said the amount of money was never mentioned in the meeting.
Mr Hagemeyer, who wrote the deed of settlement, said he was unable to include the pay out amount and inquired with Mr Robertson.
"I put in what information I know and that's when I would have contacted the CEO and say what do I put in the amount," he said.
"He (Mr Robertson) said leave it to him he will get back to me."
Mr Feeney did not ask Mr Hagemeyer any questions.
The court heard acting CEO Ross Higgins conducted a thorough examination of council documents and personal files on behalf of the council and said he was not able to locate any handwritten notes by Mr Robertson from the September meeting.
Mr Bain asked if he was able to find notes from other meetings.
"Probably more so than not, I could find quite a number of notes from previous meetings," he said.
Mr Feeney said there was a resolution passed in a council meeting on November 15, 2012, that Mr Higgins was to provide a copy of the deed of settlement.
He asked Mr Higgins if he did so.
"Yes," Mr Higgins said.
"It would have been some time after that meeting because I would have had to go find it ... I can't give you an exact day.
"I would think that it would be in days."
The sum of $500,459.20 included some annual leave, Mr Robertson was entitled to.
The prosecution is expected to call another witness on Thursday.
The trial continues.