Awabakal board threaten legal action after administrator appointed.

UNFAIR: Former Awabakal board members Debbie Dates and Richard Green, are threatening legal action after an administrator was appointed.
UNFAIR: Former Awabakal board members Debbie Dates and Richard Green, are threatening legal action after an administrator was appointed.

MEMBERS of the ousted Awabakal Aboriginal Land Council board have threatened legal action after they were stood down by the Baird government. 

Two days after NSW Aboriginal Affairs Minister Leslie Williams made good on her threat to place the Land Council in the hands of administrators, five members of the sacked board released a statement on Wednesday accusing the new administrator of having a “gross conflict of interest”.

The Herald reported on Monday that Ms Williams had appointed Terry Lawler as administrator of the Land Council, almost a year after she stood down Debbie Dates as chairwoman and announced an investigation into its affairs.

Now members of the former board – including Ms Dates and her replacement as chairwoman, Theresa Towers – have accused Mr Lawler of having a conflict of interest because of his relationship with PKF Lawler, the Land Council’s auditor.

Mr Lawler founded financial services firm Lawlers in 1977. It merged with PKF in 2014.

He ended his involvement with the accounting side of the firm two-and-a-half years ago, but remained a shareholder and chairman of a separate entity called PKF Corporate Finance.

That’s prompted the former board to accuse him of having a “gross conflict of interest”.

“PKF Lawler were the trusted auditors of Awabakal Aboriginal Land Council and they also conducted an investigation on behalf of the Registrar of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act into the Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council,” the statement reads.

The former board members say the firm was “responsible for advising us to avoid falling into governance difficulties” and that Mr Lawler was now “benefiting from the very misfortune that his firm was there to avoid”.

However Mr Lawler said that although he had already disclosed his position to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, he sold his five per cent shareholding and stood down as chairman on Friday when he was told he had been appointed as auditor to avoid “any perception of a conflict of interest”.

“I have made people aware up front what my circumstances are so they’re understood,” he said.

Mr Lawler told the Herald he had “no involvement” with the accounting side of the firm and would have “no problem” making an adverse finding about the auditor.

“Although to be frank I have not seen anything that would raise an issue with PKF’s audit and to be frank I don't expect there will be,” he said.

Ms Dates said on Wednesday that she would pursue legal action, saying she had “not been treated fairly” by the government. 

At the same time members of the ousted board say they “unwittingly” breached an agreement with a Sydney-based property developer.

The Herald revealed on Monday that members of the Land Council had been in behind-the-scenes talks with the “controversial” privately owned residential development company Dyldam at the same time as it was working on an agreement with another development company, Advantage Properties.

Ms Dates and Ms Towers said they had met with Ray Khattar, a partner at Dyldam, together with interim chief executive Sophie Wotherspoon.    

The statement says the two women were “unwittingly brought into discussions” with Mr Khattar.

On Monday a spokeswoman for Dyldam told the Herald the company “has not undertaken any discussions with the Awabakal Aboriginal Land Council with regards to potential development projects”.

However she did not respond to questions on Wednesday.

Ms Williams said the investigation into the Land Council, conduced by Kelvin Kenney, a Sydney-based forensic account director, had uncovered “substantial breaches” of the Land Rights Act.

The government has refused to release the Kenney report.

In June the Minister issued a show cause motion to the Land Council to explain why she should not place it in the hands of an administrator. 

On Monday Ms Williams said she had “considered representations” from the Land Council “on the contents of an investigation report into its affairs and have formed the view that a period of administration is necessary to restore proper governance”.


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