CLEARED: Steven Slee, the former chief executive of the Awabakal land council, left. He was given a substantial payout after he sued the land council for unfair dismissal. He claimed his relationship with two board members deteriorated “out of the blue” in 2014. Picture: Janie Barrett A FORMER Awabakal board member was “yelled at” on the street and received “threatening” phone calls after he refused to support the suspension of the organisation’s chief executive, a corruption inquiry has heard.
The suspension – and subsequent sacking – of chief executive Steven Slee has been the focus of much of the first week of the Independent Commission against Corruption’s (ICAC) public inquiry into the Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council.
The ICAC is investigating four deals to sell off Awabakal land, all allegedly involvingthedisgraced former assistant tax commissioner Nick Petroulias.
Two Awabakal board members were allegedly involved – deputy chair Richard Green and chair Debbie Dates – but it’s understood they willargue they were presented with documents to sign that they either hadn’t read or did not understand.
The first of thosedeals was brokered in late 2014, at the same time as Mr Slee’s“supportive” relationship with the board began to deteriorate“out of the blue”.
The convicted fraud, the land council and the million dollar mysteryMissing invoices pose a $72k questionAwabakal set for scrutiny by ICACICAC inquiry launched into Awabakal land dealings”Unfortunately I was aware of the agenda to try to get rid of me as the CEO,” Mr Slee said.
“[I] received a call from board member John Hancock advising me he’d just received a call from Debbie, stating she was in the land council trying to gather evidence on me to get rid of me.”
Two months later Ms Dates and Mr Green met with Mr Slee to inform him he was being stood down. It was on the basis of “vague allegations concerning financial irregularities,” Mr Slee recalled
The registrar of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act launched an investigation, exonerating Mr Slee and recommending he be reinstated. The registrar also found Ms Dates had engaged in misconduct.
However a voting bloc on the board – that included Ms Dates and Mr Green – proceeded to terminate Mr Slee. He was paid a “substantial” settlement when he sued the land council for unfair dismissal and defamation.
In the witness box on Thursday, former board member John Hancock recountedhis version of events.
He testified thatbefore Mr Slee was installed, the land council was performing poorly in risk assessments and was “close to losing” its state funding.
“Steve had lifted us up …so we were actually getting quite good results from the NSW Local Aboriginal Land Council,” Mr Hancock said.
When Mr Slee became concerned he was being targeted for dismissal by Ms Dates, he wrote a letter and gave it to Mr Hancock to table at the next board meeting.
Mr Hancock alleged he passedthe letter onto Mr Green, who agreed to table it.
But the letter was never tabled and instead an anonymous complaint against Mr Slee was produced, according to Mr Hancock.
“It was mainly frivolous sort of stuff that was in there,” Mr Hancock recalled “It looked like something to combat or counteract the letter that Steve had asked to be submitted to the board.”
Mr Hancock said that when Mr Green and Ms Dates decided to stand Mr Slee down, he “lost confidence” in them and their behaviour became intimidating.
“That’s when the issues started to come up, threats and what not,” he said.
“I’d get yelled at while I would walk down the street by her [Ms Dates’] husband,” he said, adding that he felt like he was “being threatened” during phone calls with Mr Green.
ICAC commissioner Peter Hall QC quizzedMr Hancock about Mr Green’s intellectual capacity and ability to read.
“He could understand the business of the board and transactions it was involved in?” he asked.
“Yes,” Mr Hancock replied. “He would always look through the minutes.”
The legal counsel acting for Ms Dates put it to Mr Slee that before he was stood down he was in a “bitter personal dispute” with her.
He asked if Mr Slee had made offensive commentsabout Ms Dates’ daughter, Candy Towers. It was also suggestedMs Dates had gone to Mr Slee withconcerns about hisbrother –who worked for the land council –and possibleirregularities in his timesheets.
Mr Slee rejected all of those assertions. He pointed out his brother was cleared of any wrongdoing, and denied Ms Dates had raised the issue with the timesheets.
Commissioner Hall added that any personal dispute was “of not much weight” without knowing the nature of it.
“Just to leave it high and dry without any detail really doesn’t help me,” he said.