The last event ever staged by the Shane Warne Foundation was its 2015 Footy Finals Luncheon, a star-studded affair at the MCG that easily sold out even at $200 a plate.
A crowd of 600, including a who's who of the business, sporting and entertainment worlds, had gathered to eat and be entertained by Karl Stefanovic, Mick Molloy and the laddish antics of Wayne Carey, Garry Lyon and Sam Newman.
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'There was nothing wrong with him'
Shane Warne closes charity as questions mount
Cricket legend Shane Warne brings a close to his eponymous charitable foundation amid questions from regulators.
The event's success led the cricketing legend to announce that his personal charity had achieved a milestone and he was predicting a bumper year.
"After our poker night we'll be close to $8 million we've raised for seriously ill and underprivileged children, which is amazing and I'm really proud of that," he said.
The lunch was just one in a series of gala events thrown each year by the foundation since Warne set up the Melbourne-based children's charity in 2004.
With the patronage of luminaries such as James Packer, Eddie McGuire and Piers Morgan, plus a roster of past and present AFL and cricket stars, the foundation had become one of the most prominent celebrity charities in the country.
Yet less than three months after Warne's prediction of a bumper year, the foundation was set to close, shuttered on Warne's order amid a probe into its finances by the consumer watchdog.
Media coverage of the foundation usually involved Australia's greatest bowler smiling next to a sick a child, but this time, the questions were about the performance and probity of the charity. And there was nothing to smile about.
In October 2015, just weeks after the footy finals lunch, the foundation's board, that includes McGuire, Seek.com founder Andrew Bassat, Crown executive Ann Peacock, former Essendon chairman David Evans, comedian Glenn Robbins, and Warne as chairman, convened for an emergency meeting.
It is unclear who attended the meeting, although Warne and McGuire are believed to have been overseas at the time.
The meeting was called because the yawning gap between what Warne was saying the foundation had raised for charity and what was actually being donated to charity was about to become public.
The foundation had been haemorrhaging money, running at a financial loss for four out of the past five years.
Expenses for staging the gala dinners, celebrity cricket matches and annual poker tournaments that were its signature fundraising events had spiralled out of control.
In 2014, a particularly bad year, the foundation raised $465,000 but spent $550,000.
Making the annual donations it promised to charities such as the Starlight Foundation, Clown Doctors and individual children in need had meant raiding the foundation's cash reserves, putting its future financial health in jeopardy.
The problem had steadily worsened since 2011 under the last three chief executives appointed by Warne – his brother Jason, Crown Casino poker executive and mate Jonno Pittock, and former Melbourne Storm community relations manager Stacie Childs, Childs had recently quit as CEO.
But the appearance of success is sometimes the best defence, and the lavish events had continued despite the diminishing returns.The foundation had escaped scrutiny by not publishing its annual financial reports.
Press releases trumpeted the amount of money raised and individual donations the foundation had distributed but requests by media outlets to review the books were politely but firmly declined.
But news about its dire financial position was now finally in danger of getting out.
In September, The Sunday Age had applied for access to the foundation's annual reports under an obscure disclosure provision of Victoria's Fundraising Act.
Refusing to release them within 21 days would put the foundation in breach of the law, leading to potential prosecution and a public relations mess.
But the foundation was also hiding another explosive secret: its financial problems had finally attracted the attention of the state's charities regulator.
Consumer Affairs Victoria had begun "making inquiries" into the foundation's operations in July before renewing its fundraising licence.
Concerns had been raised about its expenses, level of donations to beneficiaries, and the amount of money it was holding in reserve, according to a CAV statement.
Recognising the foundation was in trouble, Warne hired Emma Coleman, a "change management and strategy specialist", as the new chief executive officer in September.
Coleman was brought in to conduct "an absolute forensic audit and examination of everything going forward", reverse its financial decline, and resolve the outstanding issues with the regulator, the foundation's board later said.
But the plan to fix the foundation quietly in the hope of preventing any reputational damage to the charity, Warne or its powerhouse board was now under threat.
In late October, The Sunday Age was granted partial access to the foundation's records, but the annual reports for many years were missing or incomplete.
What was made available painted a bleak picture.
The foundation asked for three weeks to get the rest of the documents in order so The Sunday Age could get the "full picture" before publication.
The delay provided an opportunity for someone connected to the foundation to pre-emptively leak the story to the Herald Sun.
The front-page story "Warne charity cash fix" detailed the cricketing legend's plan to "change the way it raises money" amid "concerns about high expenses".
A day later The Sunday Age revealed the extent of the foundation's financial issues, which included distributing only 16 cents of every dollar raised for charity between 2011-13.
Warne's brother Jason had also been paid an $80,000 annual salary in the same year the foundation had donated just $54,600 to charity.
The story provoked an immediate response from Warne, who fluctuated between acknowledging his "disappointment with the recent performance of the foundation" and lashing out at the "incorrect" reporting.
"We have no problems with anyone going through our books at any stage," he told the Herald Sun.
But it was classic spin. Despite repeated requests, the foundation still refused to release the full set of annual reports as required by state law.
The Sunday Age later revealed the foundation had in fact applied to have its records declared confidential by the national charities regulator under a provision intended to protect the privacy and security of family violence charities.
The foundation was also renting office space in a building owned by Warne's parents.
An incensed Warne used his role as a Channel Nine commentator to launch a spirited defence of the foundation during the lunch break of the Adelaide Test against New Zealand in November.
"We've got absolutely nothing to hide at the Shane Warne Foundation. We've never done anything inappropriate. All we've tried to do is our best endeavours to make a serious difference," Warne said, noting he was considering legal action.
His offensive continued on the airwaves, appearing with close mate and fellow board member McGuire and foundation ambassador Molloy on a 14-minute segment on Triple M's breakfast program.
"If you get the muppets out there that try to have a go at you, you think, 'why do I do this?'" Warne said.
"We've always tried to make sure the foundation was run on a shoestring budget."
The reality, however, contradicted his claims that the foundation had just had a bad year or two.
Financial records show the foundation donated to charity just 24 cents of every dollar it raised in 2014-15, the most recent year available.
This charitable distribution – worth about $134,000 – meant the foundation operated at a loss because expenses consumed 86 per cent of its revenue.
A related entity, the Shane Warne Necessitous Circumstances Fund, handed out $79,500 to charity that year, which could push the distribution level to 32 cents of every dollar and reduce expenses to 71 per cent of revenue.
However, the foundation would not clarify whether the NCF is funded by the main charity or independently, which would have an impact on the distribution and expense calculations. In effect, some donations could have been counted twice.
It was just one of many questions the foundation has never answered.
Over the past 20 years, the cricketing great has routinely been the subject of scandal and public opprobrium but his personal brand has always withstood the controversy.
A 12-month suspension from professional cricket for taking a banned drug, a fine for accepting money from a bookie in exchange for information, the sexting scandals – none of it has permanently tarnished his image as Australia's best-known larrikin.
His flamboyant responses to these incidents have often been as memorable as the crises themselves.
But Warne's tendency to speak off-the-cuff about the foundation's affairs was causing problems.
In September, he said the foundation had raised $7 million for charity, but was forced to qualify the figure in light of the media scrutiny.
He was now saying the foundation had distributed about 50 per cent of what it had raised since 2004.
This was often accompanied with a pledge to give away another $400,000 to $500,000 in the coming months, bringing the total directly contributed to charity to more than $4 million in the past 11 years.
But those in the know knew better. The foundation had only $371,000 in cash in July 2015, according to its financial report.
Ticket sales for the foundation's Footy Finals Luncheon in September had brought in at least $120,000 but the cost of staging the event at the MCG had consumed most of the funds raised.
Warne was now banking on the eighth annual Joe Hachem and Shane Warne Charity Poker Tournament in late January to deliver a financial windfall.
Handing over a cheque of $400,000 to $500,000 to charity would have represented the foundation's biggest donation in five years – but would also threaten to wipe out its savings.
"You can't do that, just throw numbers out about how much you are going to raise and donate at some point in the future," a source close to Warne said. "Fulfilling that promise could have put the solvency of the foundation at risk."
Despite the problematic maths, the financial pledge was the centrepiece in a series of announcements made at a press conference at Crown Casino on December 21.
Warne called the press conference just days after The Sunday Age filed a second application to review the foundation's full financial records because Warne was still refusing to provide any verification for the $4 million donation figure.
Warne, flanked by McGuire, Bassat, Peacock and the rest of the board, unveiled a major restructure that would slash costs and boost donations.
Warne and McGuire also labelled the media's investigation into the foundation's financial performance a "witch hunt" and warned "innocent kids will be affected by these stories".
"The reason why nobody has bailed off the board is that we really believe in this bloke, we believe in Shane Warne, we know his heart, we know his track record, we know he has recast this foundation," McGuire said.
Despite the united front, some board members were privately scathing about the administration of the charity, with one branding it a "disaster".
What wasn't announced was that the newly appointed chief executive officer Coleman had actually tendered her resignation just days earlier, plunging the foundation into a fresh crisis.
Apart from resolving the foundation's regulatory problems, Coleman had been hired to boost revenue by raising money directly from wealthy donors and corporate sponsors.
A number of lucrative agreements were being negotiated at the time, including a potential partnership with Channel Nine and the EJ Whitten Foundation to stage a charity football match that could have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But Coleman suddenly tendered her resignation in mid-December amid concerns donors and sponsors were being misled about the promised overhaul.
Before the press conference at Crown, she had been told her employment contract would not continue past February once the funding deals were locked in and the poker tournament fundraiser was over – information she was not to disclose publicly.
Sources say Coleman's "protest" resignation and the foundation's ongoing problems with the regulator caused significant disquiet among the foundation's financial backers, ambassadors and some board members.
Warne, who initially denied Coleman was leaving, later conceded the foundation was "looking at all options but nothing has been decided".
The new plan to run the foundation would rely on using volunteers and services donated pro-bono instead of paying for management staff, Warne said.
It was the only time Warne would agree to speak to The Sunday Age but he still refused to answer detailed questions about the foundation's finances or provide the full set of annual reports.
Warne would again use his influence at Channel Nine to get airtime during the cricket coverage to promote the work of the foundation. But frustration at an inability to set the media agenda was beginning to tell.
Upset at the story detailing Coleman's departure, McGuire texted one of the journalists and Fairfax Media chief executive Greg Hywood at 3am.
"Chris [Vedelago], just so bad. Just so standard. We don't care. We make money for kids. You? Well it's a different journalism ideal I bought into. Probably not your fault. Greg Hywood should hang his head. F--- off. Eddie."
Warne, a prolific social media user, also took to Instagram – he has more than 280,000 followers – to vent his displeasure and claim he was the victim of a vendetta.
In the wake of the foundation's problems, three major sponsors withdrew their support. None of the sponsors criticised Warne or the foundation publicly, instead citing the natural expiry of their sponsorship contracts as the reason for their departure.
The upheaval is understood to have caused further consternation at Consumer Affairs.
The regulator had renewed the foundation's charity licence in September in part based on undertakings Coleman – on behalf of the board – had given to improve its reporting and accounting practices.
Yet, just three months later, the person responsible for implementing the changes was leaving and there was no plans to replace her.
The foundation was also now nearly two months late filing its 2014-15 annual report.
CAV had made several requests for information but what had been received was "not sufficient", it said.
On Christmas Eve, the regulator moved. It took the extraordinary step of ordering an independent audit of the foundation to determine whether money had been "properly accounted for and applied" in compliance with state fundraising laws.
It would take nearly a month for news of the audit to be made public, but by January Warne had already privately decided to shut down the 11-year-old charity and was fine-tuning an exit strategy.
Despite emphatic denials by his manager James Erskine, Channel Ten was negotiating for Warne's prized signature on a $2 million contract to star in reality TV show I'm A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here.
But Warne was in a dilemma – accept the reality TV gig or honour his promise and proceed with his charity's annual poker tournament fundraiser? The poker tournament was cancelled.
Warne and his management team, hoping to keep his departure to South Africa a secret, had planned to announce the closure of the charity upon his return to Australia after the show finished.
Warne intended to blame the foundation's demise on unfair media coverage, but an insider leaked his plan to The Sunday Age, which ran a story pre-empting the exit strategy.
A week later, just before he was due to leave for the South African jungle, Warne formally announced the charity was shutting due to "unwarranted speculation" about its financial and regulatory problems.
He did not mention the foundation was being forced to undergo an independent audit by Consumer Affairs.
When The Sunday Age revealed the existence of the official probe the next day, Warne blasted the regulator for wasting the resources of the foundation.
"This is a disgrace and absurd," he posted on Facebook.
CAV said the audit would go ahead regardless of the charity's planned closure..
A foundation representative said this week it plans to complete the audit by the February 29 deadline.
Meanwhile, with Warne isolated from the outside world, his management team, family and the board have been scrambling to repair the damage to his reputation.
This has included hiring crisis public relations expert Stephen Kerr, whose clients have included the Carlton Football Club, Jetstar and Geoffrey Edelsten.
A detailed PR strategy is being prepared for his return, including donating $400,000 to $500,000 to charity. How this is possible after cancelling the charity poker tournament has not been explained.
Media sources say there has also been a behind-the-scenes campaign to attribute blame for the charity's failure to former chief executive Coleman despite her being employed as CEO for only three months. This is emphatically denied by Kerr.
Coleman has refused to comment on any matters relating to the foundation, citing a confidentiality agreement.
Concerns are also being raised that KPMG has been selected to perform the independent audit, the same firm responsible for compiling the annual reports that are now under scrutiny.
The foundation still has not released the complete set of financial records sought by The Sunday Age, despite being warned by CAV about its "obligations" under state law.
In response to a new application – the third in five months – the foundation's PR representative has pledged they will eventually be disclosed.
Shuttering the charity in the middle of a formal investigation will likely rank as one of Warne's strangest decisions in a professional and private life already littered with controversy.
Sources close to Warne said he was simply fed up with having to justify himself and had been encouraged by close associates to shut it down because "it all was just too much trouble".
Others say he now recognises the fundraising model based on lavish parties, charity auctions and sports days no longer works.
Either way, it was a major retreat in a very short period given Warne had been saying as recently as November "we're in this for the long haul".