WCC credit card #4 and laying the whole mess bare

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The truth laid bare: unravelling Warrnambool City Council’s spending and connections means entering a tangled, seemingly endless web.

Carol Altmann – The Terrier

Today is the final episode of Season One of House of Cards meets Warrnambool City Council meets Game of Thrones, where all the lines in the ever-thickening and outrageous plot come together and I lay it all out on the table.

The opening scene in this special, double episode is yet another corporate credit card – we are now up to number four – which has the same pattern of spending on the backs of ratepayers that has become so depressingly familiar: the dinners, the drinks, the endless coffees, the lunches, on and on and on.

I have been sitting on all of this information for a very, very long time, hoping the council would eventually throw open the windows, but it hasn’t and it won’t, so I am doing it for them.

I will start with credit card #4 and a snapshot:

Exhibit A is $98 worth of drinks at the Hairy Goat on a Friday night on 21 September last year, which is around the time when, supposedly, the council was cracking down on its credit card use after “discovering” the inappropriate and over-the-top spending of former tourism chief David McMahon.

Exhibit B is a $163 dinner for two people at the Warrnambool Hotel on a Saturday night, 26 May last year, which included a dozen oysters au naturale and, wait for it, a plate of eye fillet. (Whoever gets to play the eye fillet in the eventual movie of this saga is going to become a star).

And then there is Exhibit C, a receipt from 10 December last year – after the council re-wrote its floppy credit card policy – where two people spent $105.30 on dinner at the Japanese cafe Gyoza Gyoza in Melbourne, of which $44.90 was soaked up by a bottle of pinot gris (with two glasses).

This outing was enjoyed just a week after the council decided to apply to break the rate cap and bump our rates up by 4.5% this year and the next.

What a ****** cheek.

Like you, I have had a gut full of the excuses and the ducking and weaving and hiding behind Utopia inspired spin that does nothing to comfort ratepayers that this long age of entitlement, slack governance and lack of accountability is well and truly over.

It needs to be rooted out and that’s why it’s time to name names.

Credit card #4 is held by the Manager of Economic Development and Investment Shaun Miller, he of the two jobs and who, after being named in relation to those two jobs, prompted an email from CEO Peter Schneider asking me not to name staff.

I tried that tack, but the council has done nothing since to convince me that it intends to get to the bottom of the rot which runs so deep. (#notAllstaff)

In fact all the signs point to yet another cover-up, so the gloves are coming off, because my only motivation through all of this is to expose the truth. So here are some truths.

The accommodation invoice from the WCC delegation to the 2017 Victorian Tourism Conference at Flemington Racecourse.

Mr Miller travels around a lot. I can now reveal he is the mystery man who, you may recall and according to an invoice paid for by his former colleague, Mr McMahon, arrived two days early, on a Saturday, for a conference in 2017 that was held at the Flemington Racecourse which, on that Saturday, was hosting a major racing event.

A coincidence? Maybe, because our council thrives on coincidence.

Certain people don’t like me naming Mr Miller. When I wrote about his two jobs, there was a barrage of abuse and behind-the-scenes threats, perhaps because these people suspected that I knew more than I was writing about publicly. They were right, I did. More about that shortly.

I have not had any direct response from Mr Miller about his credit card use, however I did get another polite email on his behalf from Mr Schneider last Friday night, but it said nothing new and provided no explanation for the receipts above.

Mr Miller’s spending is signed off by his superior, Director City Growth Andrew Paton.

Mr Paton is the owner of credit card #3.

This is the card that was used, among many other things, to pay for the $1476 dinner at Pippies, and the $700 dinner at the Myrtle Kitchen which included five bottles of wine at $79 a bottle.

Mr Paton was very polite in his response to my emailed questions last week, but he is gagged from answering me directly, such is the council’s tight grip around the throats of those who might wish to talk to journalists.

If he could have spoken to me, Mr Paton might have explained the purpose of the boozy Myrtle Dinner which was attended by four people, including himself and Cr Sue Cassidy.

Cr Cassidy is another name that is significant to this story because Cr Cassidy is one of two councillors on the council’s Audit and Risk Committee. This committee is important because, well, it is designed to keep an eye on audit and risk, ie. the use of public money.

This is the committee that has just been put in charge of the external audit into the use of council credit cards.

You guessed it, Barry the Bullshite Detector has been having a meltdown.

So let’s paint the picture: Mr Paton is the boss of Mr Miller and was the boss of Mr McMahon and was the manager responsible for signing off on all the questionable spending on their credit cards, while at the same time using his own credit card to pay for a long, boozy dinner attended by Cr Cassidy who is a member of the council Audit and Risk Committee that will now oversee the investigation into those cards.

The House of Cards ain’t got nothing on this.

And rolling along behind the scene of this car wreck are three specific side stories that I also want you to know about.

(Intermission. Lights up. Toilet break. Grab a choc top. Right, away we go…)

An example of the redacted credit card statements provided by the WCC via a lengthy and costly Freedom of Information process.

Side story one: Freedom of Information. As you know, none of this – none of it – would have seen the light of day had it not been for a Freedom of Information application that I lodged almost a year ago, asking for Mr McMahon’s credit card receipts.

The council did everything it could to stop me getting that information fully and efficiently and the whole process took nine months and a lot of money (#thankyouTerrierTipJar).

Even after the nine-month wait and all that money, we would not have known about the secret repayments and behind-the-scenes deal between Mr McMahon and the then CEO Bruce Anson last November, had it not been for sources.

That whole, disgraceful cover-up was only exposed, here, in July.

And who in the council was in charge of responding to my Freedom of Information applications about the credit cards?

The CEO’s executive assistant, Wendy Clark.

So, to try and find out information that ultimately involved the actions and decisions of the former CEO, I had to go through the former CEO’s executive assistant.

And if I wanted to dive deeper and detail the tens of thousands of dollars of credit card spending on behalf of Mr Anson – he didn’t use his own corporate card to buy, for example, the cases of wine enjoyed after council meetings  – I would need to go through the same executive assistant.

Does that pass the pub test?

And just to tangle that web a little more, Ms Clark, the CEO executive assistant, is the senior staff member who has lived in a council-owned CBD apartment for more than 30 years and for most of that time has leased it on nothing more than a handshake deal.

That suspect arrangement existed until I started asking questions and learned, wait for it, a written lease had been miraculously signed just a few weeks before my probing.

This is the rotten culture I am talking about.

It stinks and it has to end.

Side story two: former tourism chief Mr McMahon was a bully and made life hell for a lot of people, especially women. He came to the council with a reputation as a bully that somehow escaped the attention of those who hired him, but which I have since substantiated.

This is how this whole story started, not from people contacting me to talk about his credit card abuse – although that was raised too – but because of Mr McMahon’s foul-mouthed bullying and a desperation to be heard, because nobody in council was listening.

I told  Cr Tony Herbert about this bullying when we met last August in the meeting that he now fails to remember much about at all. Cr Herbert did nothing. The council did nothing. #goodbloke #heLikesAdrink

Nothing happened to Mr McMahon – he stayed in his top job while so many around him fell away, distressed and exhausted, and he stayed there right up until his dishonesty around his credit card expenditure finally caught up with him last July.

How was Mr McMahon hired in the first place? Why was he allowed to get away with all that he did? And why on earth – why on earth – did current CEO Mr Schneider praise him upon his departure?

This is how the council boys’ club works and it is part of the rotten culture that I am talking about.

It stinks and it has to end.

Mayor Tony Herbert signs an MOU with the Mayor of Mariestad Johan Abrahamsson after a delegation from Mariestad and Nilsson Energy visited Warrnambool last April. Image: WCC

Side story three: Mr Miller has two jobs. One is full-time with the council and the other, as I reported recently, is with a start-up called Acusensus, which Mr Miller joined in March this year as International Business Development Manager and for whom he works 7.6 hours a week.

The chairman of Acusensus is a smart, charismatic guy called Ravin Merchandani.

Before Mr Miller joined the WCC in 2016, he and Mr Merchandani were in upper level management at a company called Mack Valves, which makes valves for things like hydrogen pumps.

Mr Merchandani is still the director/chairman of Mack Valves and is now also the Australian representative of a group called Nilsson Energy, based near the regional city of Mariestad, Sweden.

Mr Merchandani became the Australian rep of Nilsson Energy after going to see its work in Mariestad in June last year and, it seems, came away very impressed.

Ten months later, in April 2019, Mr Merchandani was part of a delegation from the city of Mariestad and Nilsson Energy that was invited to visit Warrnambool and talk about using hydrogen electricity, which is the next big thing and has companies jostling for a slice of the action.

Mr Miller was a key driver and organiser of this Warrnambool visit, which saw Mr Merchandani share the stage at Deakin Uni with government reps.

As a result of that April trip, Warrnambool CC and the city of Mariestad signed an MOU to share ideas and information and keep the momentum moving.

Tomorrow night’s council meeting (2/9) will decide whether to send our Mayor, CEO and a council staff member – I wonder who that might be? – to Sweden to visit Mariestad before the end of the year. The public will help pay for the cost of that trip.

And this is the nub: nowhere, at no time, has there been a public declaration by the council of Mr Miller’s active business links to Mr Merchandani and any potential conflict of interest that may arise from the Mack Valves/Nilsson Energy Australia/Acusensus connection.

In fact Mr Merchandani’s name is missing from the list of names in tomorrow night’s council agenda of those who visited Warrnambool with the Mariestad delegation in April.

Zero transparency.

This is the rotten culture that I am talking about.

It stinks and, despite hundreds of hours of investigation into all of the issues above, I am still only just touching the surface.

Curtain falls. Lights up. Credits roll.

Credits: all of the brave people who have trusted me to tell the truth, I see you and I want to thank you. And Dad, as I write this on this Father’s Day, I see you too, even though you are long dead. My Dad was a bricklayer who got up at 5am every morning to make the money to pay his rates. I have done the best I can to get the fresh start in Warrnambool that we all deserve; it is now up to our elected officials, and our leaders, to press the reset button. On we go.

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15 thoughts on “WCC credit card #4 and laying the whole mess bare”

  1. Well done Carol, great article and thank you for your time and personal energy in uncovering these issues. It would interesting to know if these staff paid any FBT on their salary with all these benefits especially the executive assistant. I am sure the ATO would be interested in these employment benefits that are under reported for all concerned. Next issue…. again thank you.

  2. Thank you Carol for you devotion to this matter. What a abuse of trust .
    This boys club has been going on for over 30 years . I worked for the then mayor , who used to go to the mayoral office at 11am each day , and have drinks 🍷 . Then on return abuse me in particular . Karma finally took place and after his mayoral position finished he was booked for being over the legal limit ,and had to walk for a while.
    This is an absolute disgrace , can you explain to me why the government won’t get involved .
    Many thanks for you troubles . Happy father day to your dad Wally and my dad Noel who were friends.

  3. An amazing portfolio of work Carol, though I don’t think that your work here is done yet.

    One issue that has been exercising my mind, and all the more so since you have named Cr Cassidy. Is how we can expect an open and honest outcome from this notional external audit even leaving aside the fact that it won’t examine the actual misuse of funds. Cr Cassidy’s objectivity is clearly questionable. The external auditor will be constrained to receive clarification of the scope of his or her audit from Crs Neoh and Cassidy only, not the Audit & Risk Committee, so we will never know what riding instructions the auditor actually received and and it is not clear that either Council or the Audit & Risk Committee will know either.

    Further, who are the Audit & Risk Committee, their names should have been published on the WCC website, but if they have been I can’t find them. I have identified some coming and going through an examination of Council meeting minutes, but I do not know who is currently on the committee or who is the Chair. This may seem trifling in the scheme of things, but how are we to know if there are any conflicts of interest given the type of people qualified to become members of the A&R committee and those who might be appointed as the external auditor in this case.

    1. Hi Jim, the fact that something as simple as the names of the people on the Audit and Risk Committee cannot be found on the WCC website says so much about how difficult it is to get straight forward information. It is the same with the internal credit card policy that must be accessed via an FOI application. Unfortunately I have no faith in any independent or external audit being truly independent if it has to run through the filter of the WCC. I wish I could say that I did, but the events of recent weeks have only confirmed my view that it will do all it can to protect its image, rather than clean up its broken culture.

      1. This audit will do little to clean up the culture. That will take a lot of hard work on the part of the CEO and he will attempt to achieve this privately (which will do little to calm the concerns of the ratepayers) and I wonder how much it will cost because I don’t believe that it can be achieved without some dismissals. I think (hope) that the election will resolve the council’s integrity issues. Having said all of that, I think the best outcome would be the sacking of the council by the minister, a thorough examination of the books and the workings of the council. Leading, eventually, to an election in which I doubt any of the current incumbents would have the cheek to stand.

  4. I previously wrote to you concerning Mr Miller’s employment arrangements. What you have since uncovered is beyond what I thought was possible by an employee of WCC.

    In reference to your article, Mr Miller’s failure to declare a conflict of interest is clearly a serious matter. In reading the agenda for the meeting of 2 September, Mr Miller did not bother to declare his interest or association to the parties you have described above. This is evident in two separate reports – item 5.4 and item 5.11 (believed me it took some reading). This is as serious as the combined misappropriation of credit cards you have disclosed.

    Mr Miller’s behavior and the failing of the Council to disclose such arrangements warrants a referral to the appropriate authorities. And potentially Mr Miller’s suspension until resolved.

  5. Shit we are dragging peoples names through the mud over a few meals & a few bottles of wine
    Take a family out for tea to the horse & you get no change out of $200
    People are trying to attract opportunities to the area
    We going to take them to Maccas please
    All the people tergeted seem to be men
    You are happy to name them & ruin there integrity not concerned about there mental health they have no choice lbut to sit on there hands & wait for the terrier ( dog ) to find another bone to chew on & they can start to repair their reputations & conduct there general life again council like all jobs is a way for the people who work there to support there family a means to have a life it is a job this scrutiny is disgusting
    Name your sources in regards to bullying abusive behavior
    Pls you are not operating on a level playing field you are bitter because you are a poor journalist who has an axe to grind with men in management positions

    1. There is a catering supplier contracted to the council chambers who must be disappointed at the lack of demand for his services which are no doubt more than adequate and reasonably priced as are Maccas. You don t appear to be a ratepayer in fact you don t appear to be anybody we know?

    2. Hey Anonymous. I’m happy to put my name to my reply to your rubbish comment.
      I know the journo who wrote this piece doesn’t need help defending her integrity and professionalism but clearly you need to to look up “misogyny” if you know how to. Trying to play the mental health card in this is even more appalling, I find it offensive and that’s why I’m responding to your troll-words.
      But back to the main game … I’m a WCC ratepayer who is not happy with how my rates are being spent. Are you?

  6. Everybody works hard to make money, we should arrange a public protest for rate fee reduction. We pay a very expensive rate for a single home and God forbid if we had investment properties! We need our Council accountable and transperant rather than wasting money, notably spent for entertainment. They need to implement a public policy regarding spending rather than make rate fees up as they go. Send them home and have leadership voted in by the community, and cut rates this year by 500 as a motion of good will.

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