$72,000 worth of missing invoices in confidential audit of Awabakal finances by PKF

PUZZLED: Former Awabakal board members Debbie Dates and Richard Green say they had not been made aware of any missing invoices and all transactions were "accountable for".

PUZZLED: Former Awabakal board members Debbie Dates and Richard Green say they had not been made aware of any missing invoices and all transactions were "accountable for".

INVOICES for transactions worth more than $70,000 have vanished, according to an audit of financial statements for the Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council. 

The confidential audit by PKF  – seen by the Newcastle Herald – also raises concerns about "inconclusive audit evidence" and "material inconsistencies" in the land council’s finances that "remained unresolved".  

As a result, the accounting firm was unable to fulfill its obligation to form an opinion on the land council’s finances.

It has also referred the financial statements to the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC). 

The audit was for the 2015/16 financial year, a period before Terry Lawler was installed as administrator and Rob Russell was appointed the land council’s chief executive. 

The state government placed the land council into administration last October, after an investigation found it was responsible for "substantial breaches" of the Land Rights Act. 

When contacted, Mr Russell strongly objected to the publication of the contents of the audit, saying it was a matter for Awabakal members only. He refused to offer any further comment. 

As part of the audit, invoices worth $73,255 were selected for review, but according to PKF, were unable to be provided. 

"Therefore, we were unable to obtain sufficient appropriate audit evidence to support the validity of these transactions," the report stated. 

"Furthermore, there may be other payments that were not selected for testing where supporting evidence may not be found." 

The audit is understood to have been presented to a meeting of Awabakal members but former chair of the board, Debbie Dates, and deputy chair, Richard Green, both said they had not been informed of any missing invoices. 

"Everything is accountable for, all the invoices are in the office," Ms Dates said. "If they're standing up and saying this and that, show us the proof."

It's understood a meeting of Awabakal members had to be abandoned last month, after it descended into chaos.

"I got up asking a question and the meeting was shut down," Ms Dates said. 

"ICAC was on the agenda and the post office. We were asking questions and it was shut down. If anyone is going to ICAC, why don't they tell them?" 

When contacted by the Herald, Mr Green said it was the first he had heard of the missing invoices. 

"They've spent $300,000 of Aboriginal land council money doing the investigation [into the land council] and nothing has come out of it," he said. 

"The state land councils and the ministers, they have sent a lot of these investigators into these land councils. Instead of helping them, they do investigations into them so they can make money out of the Aboriginal people and take their funding. It's been happening for 40 years." 

The document shows the land council made a loss of $930,474 in 2015/16, coming off the back of a $1.5m profit in the financial year prior. 

The bumper result in 2014/15 was largely due to successful land claims, valued at $1.28 million, and profit on the sale of property, plant and equipment. 

The land council paid $137,539 for repairs and maintenance in 2015/16, more than double what it had paid the year beforehand  ($61,639). The land council's cash reserves at the bank fell from just over $1 million to $461,921. 

The audit indicated there were still 218 undecided land claims across the city. "If granted, this will significantly increase Awabakal LALC net worth," it said. 

However Lands Minister Paul Toole would not confirm the status of land claims known to have been lodged at King Edward Park, the entrance to Newcastle Harbour and James Fletcher Park. 

“A comprehensive and exhaustive investigation on every claim is required. These claims that you asked about are progressing and are at various stages of investigation," a spokesperson for Mr Toole said. 

A number of Awabakal properties – including the former post office and land at Warners Bay and Waratah’s Braye Park – have become embroiled in lawsuits launched against the land council by developers. Court orders exist preventing the sale of the land. 

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