Cash for cuddles: 'Orphanage tourism' is big business in Cambodia.
Steve Morrish is a former Victorian copper with a shaved head. Ruth Golder is a former missionary from Queensland with a diamante embedded in a front tooth. Steve Morrish and Ruth Golder don't know each other. They move in different circles. He plays footy, she goes to church. But they have a few things in common.
For some years, both have lived in Phnom Penh, Morrish heading a group investigating human trafficking and crimes against women and children, Golder running an orphanage. Both have a heightened sense of self-righteousness. And, in 2013, both had ignominious downfalls.
Ruth Golder during a raid on an Australian run orphanage in Phnom Penh.
When SISHA, the Gina Rinehart-backed non-government organisation (NGO) that Steve Morrish founded in 2007, helped shut down Ruth Golder's operation last year, it set in train a process that would end with Morrish's own comeuppance. It also fed the clamour of headlines about the country's under-regulated and corruption-tainted not-for-profit sector.
"It's a f...ing strange world to work in, the NGO world," says one who works in the sector. What he might have added is that this strange world makes for riveting drama. The backdrop is Phnom Penh, a wild-west town that's home to about 3000 NGOs; a steamy, rumour-mongering municipality of girlie bars, orange-robed monks, begging rings, aid workers, expat do-gooders, rogues, outcasts, bums and people on the make, where tuk-tuks and motos fight for an edge with the Range Rovers favoured by Khmer generals and the city's new rich. The cast includes two expat website proprietors and their ribald commenters, a couple of idealistic NGO workers, and a swarm of Cambodian children.
And the storyline? Ruth Golder allegedly beat Cambodian children living at her Love in Action orphanage. Baby boys in her care were dressed in frocks. Former volunteers and aid workers from other NGOs claim the children were malnourished and had untreated illnesses.
Overlooking the main street of Phnom Penh. Photo: Jack Atley
In late January 2013, over about two weeks, 10 children ran away from the orphanage. At least two of them escaped over a two-metre-high gate in the middle of the night. It's possible that Steve Morrish didn't know that SISHA (South East Asia Investigations into Social and Humanitarian Activities) subsequently received reports about the children's escape. He certainly wasn't there when Cambodian police and SISHA staff removed 25 remaining children in March.
For some time, Morrish's staff had watched him become increasingly detached. He was spending time in Bangkok, where his beautiful Cambodian wife, Shuly, was having IVF treatment and he was working on opening a Thai branch of SISHA. Another part of his brain was focused on his private security firm. And, by all accounts, Gina Rinehart's injection of more than $1 million into SISHA in 2012 and 2013 had caused him to see stars.
"Steve became a very big man," says one of his many former friends.
Nevertheless, Morrish, 43, cared greatly about what people had to say about him and his NGO. When observers started to criticise SISHA's role in the LIA closure, he started to get mad.
On one expat forum, someone calling himself "keeping_it_riel" wrote, "It sounds to me like one bunch of Aussie cowboys in the anti-trafficking industry going after another bunch of Aussie cowboys in the orphanage 'pity' industry - totally unsavoury, whichever way you look at it." Added "ken svay": "Another f...ing ex copper who likes the good life. Why don't they stay at home and fight the good fight?"
Morrish, a stocky man who was known as "Bulldog" when he served in the Victorian police force, seethed as the online comments mounted. Who did these parasites think they were to write such "vile dribble"? In late April last year, at an expat watering hole, he snapped; after all, take a bunch of sweaty expat men with a few schooners of Angkor in them and some steam to blow off, and things were bound to go pear-shaped. Afterwards, the words people threw around online to describe what happened were worthy of a film script: "a raid", "a lock-in", a "thug squad assault". Morrish's antics whipped up more than a little hyperbole. Everyone, it seemed, had gone troppo.
But oppressive humidity and too much beer had nothing to do with what was to follow in the city dubbed Dodge City, Scambodia. Over the next three months, the rumours flew: now SISHA was in financial strife; Morrish had diverted Rinehart funds donated for specific projects to cover SISHA's inflated operating expenses.
Then, on August 16, an announcement that was met with glee in the city's bars and chatrooms: "Steve Morrish has resigned as executive director of SISHA." Within days, Gina Rinehart had stepped down from its expert advisory panel.
The children called her "Mumma Ruth". Ruth Golder called the kids who arrived at her orphanage names like Moses, Joshua and Daniel. But Isaac was the special one. Golder announced his arrival at Love in Action in a newsletter in early 2007. His mother couldn't care for him and had brought him to LIA's gates when he was 15 days old. "Mummy Ruth prayed about a name and God gave her Isaac Samuel," Golder wrote. (In the same newsletter, she said she had been home for a gall bladder operation. "I was brought back to Oz by insurance so I travelled first class, what a blessing as I needed the comfort. God is Good.")
Isaac Samuel was hailed as the "promised child" of Tracey, Golder's 40-something daughter. Tracey, who divides her time between Phnom Penh and Queensland's Sunshine Coast, would see Isaac when she visited Cambodia. "I have never had the privilege of having my own child but this little boy has been given to me as my promise [sic] child to love and cherish," she wrote on Facebook after the LIA closure last March. She said a Cambodian attorney was working through the process for her to adopt Isaac, now about seven.
Since the closure and the placement of children in foster homes, Tracey Golder has repeatedly tried to get access to "my beautiful son". It seems unlikely she'll succeed. A Good Weekend investigation has found that people held concerns about the plight of children at LIA as far back as 2006. A senior police colonel confirmed that a Ministry of Justice prosecutor was investigating the case, although it's believed no charges will be laid.
In Cambodia, where the rule of law is frail and bureaucracy impenetrable, no story is straightforward. The Golders deny all allegations. Tracey Golder insists her mother holds Cambodian legal documents clearing her. Family friend Rob McVey says, "I know in my heart that this couldn't possibly be as bad as it's made out to be." Ray Rands, who has been on the LIA board since the beginning, adds: "I've no doubts about their credibility and the work they do."
The Golders' account of the matter is mysterious, evasive and peopled with goodies and baddies. "Someone", says Tracey, "has been spinning a web", making false allegations, fabricating evidence. She won't say who, although it seems she blames another figure in Phnom Penh's Christian community who wants to take over LIA. It's the tall poppy syndrome, she says. It's people who are vindictive and jealous of her mother's relationship with Cambodia and Cambodians.
"Jealousy and discontentment can breed terrible things, bring up monsters in people in a nation like this." That's how Tracey Golder explains away a compelling trail of evidence. It's how she explains why anyone would want to take over an orphanage that's likely more liability than asset. "Ask me why so many people are vindictive - well try and ask Hitler why he killed, try and ask Idi Amin, try and ask Pol Pot why he killed millions. Foreigners group together here and if they see a lamb can be slaughtered and that'll make them look good ... well, they'll slaughter that lamb."
But there's no sympathy for the Golders among many who were privy to Love in Action's workings or saw the children after they were taken away. "It's such a terrible story because so many people give them so much money," says one person, who asked to remain anonymous. "It's like, 'Oh gosh, if only you knew'. "
The Golders' operation, which had become a tax-exempt charity in Australia and the United States by 2007, did not adhere to the government's minimum standards for the residential care of children, according to the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs' official letter explaining LIA's closure. "There was not enough food; there was no hygiene; there was a lack of properly trained child carers; there were no documents for any of the children ..."
In statements that Good Weekend has seen, several former volunteers allege that Ruth Golder did not seek medical attention for sick children. Not so, says her daughter. Sick children were taken to hospital or to an Australian doctor. One volunteer who spent five months at LIA in 2006 observed that a child with tuberculosis had not seen a doctor the whole time he was there. Tracey Golder says the child had 18 months of treatment. (On the LIA website, Ruth Golder claims to have "trained in ... medical care as a nurse" but her daughter confirms she was a nurse's aid.)
A former volunteer said children spent two hours a day singing hymns and studying the Bible. Another volunteer reported that one 15-year-old boy returned from school one day to find he had been "kicked out of the home with nowhere to go". Staff told him that he could not take his personal items. Others noted that the children's school attendance became increasingly sporadic and some could not speak Khmer. (Tracey Golder denies the boy was kicked out, and says children went to school every day and spoke fluent Khmer.)
In April 2011, a 15-year-old LIA boy turned up at another NGO with a black eye and badly bruised ribs. "He was clearly traumatised; he was still shaking," says someone who saw the boy that day. The boy alleged that Ruth Golder had beaten him with a stick because he was late for church. He added that food was so limited older children rationed what they ate so smaller children could have more. Tracey Golder says the boy's claims are untrue.
In 2011, Cambodian police and child-protection NGOs investigated LIA, and the Minister of Social Affairs was asked to review reports about a "high level of abuse at the Love in Action orphanage". Sources say police interviewed Ruth Golder, but she was let off with a warning.
Sitting at coffee corner, a Phnom Penh expat cafe, Ruth Golder is an incongruous, gypsy fantasia: red locks, purple-painted nails, bauble-weighted earlobes and glitter eyeshadow freckled through crows' feet. "I think my sense of humour is what has kept me [going]," says the great-grandmother. She says she died inside when the children were removed. "It's like having a little bubby ripped out of your arms."
She loved the children, she says. Her tears well up and stop just as suddenly. She counselled them - "because I'm a counsellor, I know how to work a farm, and I counselled my own kids". She taught them principles. "I explained to them what not to do; I'd tell them about when I was a little girl and if I told a lie."
Ruth Golder grew up in Hamilton in Victoria's Western Districts. Her father was a timber-cutter. "[He was] a hard man - like they all were those days, a disciplinarian," says 71-year-old Golder. She remembers what happened when she told lies. "Dad wasn't happy." Once, she broke his shaving mirror. "I hid up in the shed all day."
Golder grew up to marry Reg and they had three children and a dairy farm in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. After Reg died, she went to India as a missionary, and later to Africa and the Philippines. She arrived in Cambodia in 2001. "I had a vision for the country," says Golder, who launched LIA in 2004. "I've still got a vision for the country. To help them feel proud to be Cambodian."
At one point, Golder had more than 80 children in her care and two residential facilities. Towards the end, there was one, and she lived nearby in a house with a couple of staff members and three or four babies. "I've never seen anybody running an NGO, a faith-based NGO, living in a house like this; it was something I would have expected a high-level executive to live in," says Tyrone Peterson, an American missionary who lived in Phnom Penh for 18 months and met Ruth Golder in late 2012. He says Golder's house had four levels, views through floor-to-ceiling glass windows and Western toilets in two or more bathrooms. Volunteer statements noted the children's accommodation had barely a piece of furniture and one dodgy toilet.
Golder is vague about where the children who filled her orphanage came from. "Like I said to God when I first came, I said, 'God, where are the children?' He said, 'You build a loving home and house and they will come.' " She didn't call LIA an orphanage. It was a "family home". "I brought them up like my own family." Well, she adds, they're not her children - "they're God's kids".
In fact, they're likely the children of living Cambodian parents. The country has a surplus of orphanages, not of orphans. The number of non-government residential care facilities in Cambodia grew by 75 per cent between 2005 and 2010, according to UNICEF. About three-quarters of the children in them had one or more parent alive. "The orphan children of the war are now adults," says Sebastien Marot, executive director of Friends International.
Still, the myth of the Cambodian orphan is a powerful marketing tool for child speculators who exploit the abundant supply of small cute faces from destitute families. For every reputable operation, there are many more of doubtful worth or worse. "Kids are the item on sale, if you want, or exhibition," says Marot, whose organisation campaigns to end "orphanage tourism" - visitors' cash for cuddles with children who might have been collected by "child recruiters" to fill facilities falling way below legislated minimum standards.
Golder's failure to respect minimum standards finally caught up with her in February 2013, after the 10 Love in Action children fled to a former LIA employee's home. Enter Steve Morrish's SISHA. "It was an emergency," says SISHA's respected former operations director, Eric Meldrum, 43. "They were reporting neglect and physical abuse to the extent that they couldn't stay there one minute longer."
On March 22, the Scottish former police officer and three SISHA aftercare workers joined a contingent of police and representatives from the Ministry of Social Affairs to visit Ruth Golder's premises, not so far from Phnom Penh's Russian Market area.
Twenty-five children between the ages of five months and 17 years were taken away in a bus, little faces pressed to the windows. Fairfax Media correspondent Lindsay Murdoch filmed Golder's histrionic response. "I'm going to fight with all my soul and all my might and I know God will fight with me because I haven't done anything wrong. I got nobody to hug."
Medical tests showed the children had lice infestations - "masses and masses of eggs and lice", according to one person who was involved. Three had untreated tuberculosis, a five-month-old baby was severely malnourished, five of seven boys under six had anaemia and at least one had developmental delays. Tracey Golder says the children with anaemia were recent arrivals at LIA.
All the children over the age of six, except Isaac, alleged they had been beaten with a stick. "Ruth told me that she would hit the boys," says Tyrone Peterson. "She said they needed to be taught a lesson; that she did it because she loved them." Peterson's wife, Rachel, who was a visitor to the LIA orphanage, says one of the boys who fled in February 2013 told her he was scared of Ruth Golder because she had a big stick and would hit the children with it.
On the day the children were removed, there was another shock: when carers went to change nappies they discovered that three children under six they had believed to be girls were actually boys. One, a baby, had his hair in bunches and was wearing a lacy top. Another had long hair and painted nails. The third boy was wearing a dress and had long hair held in a pretty clip and painted nails. Says the person who was involved that day: "That's just freaky-creepy; what were they thinking?"
Tracey Golder says older girls played dress-ups with the little boys. "It's sad that revengeful people feel as though they have to pull down Ruth and LIA." Says her mother: "I'm not perfect, nobody's perfect." The Golders have a lawyer on the case but are taking advice from other quarters, too. "I got somebody else," says Ruth Golder, pointing one long, purple-painted finger skywards.
Around sundown on April 30 last year at Phnom Penh's Cathouse Bar, Steve Morrish was sharing his own feelings about vindictive and jealous people. Holding court with a bunch of blokes, his hand characteristically stuck on his hip, he whinged about the cowardly "bottom-feeders" hiding behind keyboards and false names who had criticised SISHA's involvement in the shutdown of Ruth Golder's orphanage.
For weeks, stories had been circulating that she was an "old, well-meaning lady" and that SISHA was trying to take the credit for the "raid" on her premises to lure more donors for itself. Not so, Morrish said. The critics were jealous of his success. "Steve felt cheated, that they didn't know him or the work of SISHA," says one who heard him building up steam.
Several blocks away at the Garage Bar, it was a quiet night. Lancashire-born sausage-maker Jonny Atwell was drinking rum and chatting with Peter Hogan, an expat Londoner who runs the Khmer440.com website and its forums, and "Brunt", an American Vietnam vet and the bar's co-owner. A couple of Cambodian women were behind the bar. "Like a police raid - only bad police who were drunk and on steroids," is how Hogan describes what happened next.
Morrish and nine other Western men barged in and, according to Hogan, sealed off the entrance and exit. "Where's LTO, where's Vladimir, where's Humphrey?" Morrish barked. They were the online identities of some of his Khmer440 critics and, although he had never met them, Morrish had heard they drank at the Garage Bar. They were not there that night.
"Morrish was pacing up and down ranting and becoming more agitated," says Brunt. "He said, 'I'm going to close this f...ing place down. I'm going to harass customers until it's closed. I am going to pull my cock out.' " The Khmer440 posters were all paedophiles, Morrish raged. He'd have them arrested and get their visas cancelled. He interrogated Jonny Atwell about his identity. Atwell pointed to the bar's blackboard menu where his Louisiana snags were listed. "I'm Jonny, I make sausages. I don't know who you're after, but it's not me."
Morrish demanded to know about the commenter "keeping_it_riel", who had condemned the "Aussie cowboys" on Khmer440 after the LIA orphanage closure. What he didn't know was that "keeping_it_riel" was what Peter Hogan called himself on his own site, and when Hogan said he had a bus to catch, he was allowed to leave. "It was extremely scary," says the bespectacled Hogan, who headed to the nearest police hut.
By all accounts, Morrish and a second Australian, whom the men called "Big Steve", were the only protagonists. The other eight men watched proceedings with amusement. Atwell wasn't amused, especially when "Big Steve" grabbed his throat. "I said to him, 'Let go, let go now', and he did. I don't take shit from anyone." A little later, when Atwell tried to leave the bar for a smoke, "Big Steve" put him in a headlock.
Atwell says the situation was "uncomfortable" but "comical, really". When later he asked who "Big Steve" was, one man in the group answered, "If you want to carry on making sausages in this town, you'll keep your mouth shut." Soon after, "Big Steve", a slightly built man, apologised for his behaviour. Meanwhile, Hogan had returned with a police officer who was shirtless and drunk and took one look into the bar and fled.
After the event, when people put the pieces together and worked out Morrish had been the leader, nobody was surprised. "Before this happened, you'd hear stories about his behaviour in bars," says Hogan.
"Steve with alcohol is an ugly person," says one expat who knows him. Another who has seen Morrish in hostess, or "girlie", establishments such as the Rose Bar says his behaviour in them makes other men's look saintly.
Morrish declined to answer questions about these comments. His critics point out such behaviour is inappropriate for a man who takes donor money to rescue women and children from traffickers, brothels and orphanages. But Morrish seems to have a blind spot for inappropriate behaviour. At one point, he used the slogan "Bugger a Pedophile" for his SISHA organisation. Other SISHA promotional material features an Asian pop star saluting in a revealing, bondage-style dress.
Morrish might also have a blind spot for consequences. A fortnight or so after his evening at the Garage Bar, Jonny Atwell had a heart attack, although he says it's impossible to know whether the event was a factor. Others, aware of Morrish's connections with Khmer police, were scared. Humphrey Hollins, a New Zealander locally famous for his bellicose online comments under the moniker "ken svay", took out health insurance for the first time in years. Casey Nelson, the pseudonym of a scholarly expat American who writes the blog LTO Cambodia, hired a security guard after he heard Morrish had been asking after him.
"Knowing who he was and who he's connected to, I was worried," says Nelson. "I've got a group of 10 thuggish Australians looking for me, for what I'm not 100 per cent sure." It took Nelson a while to remember he'd left a comment on Khmer440 about SISHA's role in the closure of Ruth Golder's orphanage - he'd remarked that a SISHA press release about the event had been sensationalist and aggrandising.
Nelson, who frequently writes about Cam-bodian politics, could not help but note the irony of the situation. "I'd worried in the past that some of the political work I've done might bring repercussions but ... no Cambodians ever came to get me, no thugs from the [ruling Cambodian People's Party] ever came to threaten me. The first time I felt intimidated for something I wrote, it's from somebody billing himself as being from a human rights organisation, an Australian."
Bulldog had big shoes to fill," says a former colleague who worked with Steve Morrish in the Victoria Police. Steve's father was John Morrish, a "legendary crook-catcher". The former colleague says that, as a copper on the mean streets of western Melbourne, Steve Morrish was "a bit too quick" in his reactions. "Having said that, he worked hard." Another says, "He certainly didn't achieve any Academy Awards."
Morrish, who was a senior constable when he left the force after eight years, was travelling in Asia by 2004. He scored a contract with an NGO, the International Justice Mission, and soon determined he would launch his own. "I started SISHA from the bedroom of my house in Phnom Penh," he says. "I put my life savings into it." Morrish refused to be interviewed but answered some questions by email.
"People do not understand the sacrifices I made to make SISHA work ... I doubt many other CEOs would work for four years without a salary." A SISHA insider says in the early days Morrish lived off instant noodles. The many who lent him money might not find much sympathy. "It was always very difficult to get money out of Steve," says one.
Morrish wasn't the only one volunteering his labour. "It wasn't all that amicable in the end," says an expat who worked for him in 2008 and 2009 but called it quits after not being paid for some time. "He would always maintain he wasn't drawing a salary, but [he would] take whatever money he needed from the NGO for his rent or living expenses."
But even Morrish's critics concede he had good intentions and that SISHA, which at one point had 30 or more employees, did good work. "We were making an impact and assisting a lot of people," says the former staffer. In an email, Morrish lists achievements including "glowing appraisals" for eight projects funded by grants from governments or foundations and the training of 600 Cambodian police in criminal investigation. "Most importantly we have assisted hundreds of raped women and children, provided aftercare services for them and put their offenders in jail," he says.
"He does have a good heart," says one expat, who has heard Morrish talk about his love for a little Cambodian girl in his and his wife's care whom he took to Australia for medical treatment for a facial disfigurement.
Sydney businessman Craig Carracher, who for a time was on SISHA's expert advisory board, donated about $30,000 to SISHA. "I'm a relatively satisfied donor," he says. Some of the donation went towards a youth-rights program and Carracher says he was happy with the results and the information he received about how his money was spent. Nevertheless, he says he told the SISHA board that he thought the organisation had started to spread itself too thin.
Several former staff members interviewed for this story think ego and ambition got the better of Morrish. "His ego knew no limits, nobody could touch him," says one.
"Watch this," Morrish told a former colleague one night when they were sitting in a restaurant waiting for other guests. A number of Cambodian police came through front and back doors and did a full security check. Then, a Cambodian general appeared. He joined Morrish and his companion at their table. Another time, the colleague joined Morrish for drinks with local investigators. They had a police escort for the drive to the pub.
After Gina Rinehart started to fund SISHA, things only got worse. "He would say things like, 'She'll never let this place go under', 'I can just call her any time and she'll bail it out', " according to one former staff member. Another says, "Nobody could touch him, he was the big man. He was operating in a complete world of his own."
Morrish started to travel business class and stay in good hotels. He bought a secondhand Range Rover and got a driver. "You don't need your own driver, that's just ridiculous," says one expat. Many staff were dismayed when he moved SISHA from small premises into a villa in the fashionable BKK1 area of town. It was ill-suited for the organisation's purposes, cost more to rent and needed a fit-out. He started talking about SISHA expanding into Thailand and Myanmar. "We all kind of made fun of him, we all thought it was a classic Napoleonic complex - a man who had a relentless drive to succeed, but didn't have the capabilities to do so," says one former staff member.
Another was amused to see that, after Rinehart became a donor, Morrish's emails started to have the postscript, "transcribed, not written". It was the way Rinehart's emails finished; the sign of a busy, important person with a secretary.
Stories differ about the origins of the Morrish-Rinehart relationship. The most credible is that a former police colleague in Rinehart's security team made the introduction. Former SISHA staff can see how she might have been impressed. Morrish has "an addictive energy" says one. Others describe his "eloquent" speaking skills and "exceptional" fund-raising ability. "He's a forthright, headstrong visionary who wants to get shit done," says Sean Looney, the former executive director of SISHA's US corporate entity. "He can come across as very brutish and thuggish; at other times he also comes off as being warm and gregarious and like he could bring you with him to the moon."
Looney is an unlikely person to say anything good about his former boss. In early August 2013, Morrish sacked Looney after Looney refused to transfer $30,000 of Rinehart funds from a specific project account to a general account to pay overdue salaries. Looney maintained that the transfer was illegal under American law.
Things quickly escalated. "Steve Morrish is facing serious trouble and it's all self-inflicted," wrote Phnom Penh-based New Zealander Rob Jamieson on his Penhpal blog. Leaked documents emerged a week or so later. They included a report about SISHA's finances surreptitiously compiled by an intern as well as the transcript of a conversation between Morrish and Looney.
"I hope someday there is a reckoning for all the similarly shady stuff you have done, and all of the vulnerable people your financial mismanagement has taken money from," Looney said.
The reckoning was to come almost immediately. On August 16, Morrish announced he was standing down so an independent audit could clear his name. Allegations against him were unfounded but the "campaign of online attacks" that had started after the Love in Action closure was affecting SISHA, he said, and he could not allow that.
The KPMG audit, finalised in December, found Morrish had not stolen or misappropriated Gina Rinehart's funds. However, the audit has not been released, and a SISHA statement, combined with the testimony of multiple SISHA insiders, suggest that Morrish's behaviour was unethical and that he systematically mismanaged donors' funds, of which Rinehart's were the largest and most high profile.
Between June 2012 and June 2013, she donated more than $1 million to SISHA for three programs: a woman's crisis centre; the Hope Scholarship, which funds university study for young Cambodian women; and CamKids. The audit found some funds earmarked for the CamKids and Hope Scholarship had been used to support other operations of SISHA via "intra-program loans". Some $440,000 of the Rinehart donation set for the crisis centre was swallowed up by SISHA administration expenses and salaries, including more than $70,000 for Morrish's back pay.
Former staff had multiple other concerns: the padding of budgets ("Hope Scholarship budgets were padded by between 30 and 50 per cent," says Looney); the size of Morrish's salary - at $8000 a month, "unethically high" according to Looney; the blurred lines between SISHA and his private security business, Azisafe; the movement of money between accounts; and the $5000 Morrish spent on furniture for SISHA's new Thailand office in June 2013 at the same time as staff hadn't been paid and even after the board had asked him not to proceed with opening the office.
Morrish seems to have made a habit of ignoring advice. "I vigorously advocated for well over three months a significant reduction of costs ... given [SISHA] was recording significant losses with high expenses and little revenue," wrote former CFO Ben Hawkins in his resignation memo, dated April 8, 2013. "I reported these to the board ... but nothing was done to curtail costs which were being funded with debt instead of equity."
For many, Steve Morrish's Range Rover became a symbol of the disconnect between the philanthropic sector he wanted to be part of and the excesses of his behaviour. But when SISHA chairman Stephen Higgins, the former chief executive of the ANZ Royal Bank in Phnom Penh, suggested he should sell it, Morrish is believed to have replied, "Nup, people will think that they've won if I get rid of the car."
A description of Morrish on the website of the Cambodian Eagles Australian Rules Football Club, of which he is president, inadvertently might offer the most penetrating insight into the man: "El Presidentae, the club's political veteran whose ability to inflict pain on the opposition is only matched by his ability to hurt himself."
The Morrish affair has also hurt the image of the many Australians doing good work in Cambodia. "I think it tapped into a view that there was no accountability in the NGO sector and this seemed to be a particularly egregious example of the things that could be happening," says Penhpal's Rob Jamieson. "It's outrageous that we foreigners come here, criticise the government for lack of governance and transparency, then turn around and behave the same way."
Jamieson might equally have been talking about Love in Action's Ruth Golder. For whatever good intentions she might have had, she failed the children in her care. Golder, who remains in her home in Cambodia, says she will not open another orphanage. Sources say that Isaac is living happily with a foster family. The Golders have been trying to sue Eric Meldrum for $2.5 million.
Meanwhile, the SISHA saga continues. On December 19, the SISHA board voted to reinstate Steve Morrish as CEO. Chairman Steve Higgins and operations director Eric Meldrum resigned immediately. Meldrum is owed more than $2000 he spent to keep SISHA afloat late last year. At least one respected Phnom Penh-based NGO has said it will not partner with SISHA in the future.
The SISHA board, led by chairman Stephen Higgins, has not escaped unscathed. "They failed. You can't dress it up," says Eric Meldrum. Board members did not respond to requests for comment. Steve Higgins is believed to have parted with up to $80,000 of his own funds to keep SISHA going.
In an email to Good Weekend in December, Steve Morrish said he felt betrayed by people he had put in positions of trust and the affair had "cut a deep wound in me". He dismissed allegations against him as being made by "two junior staff members who had limited knowledge of the integral workings of SISHA". A press release a few weeks later, after his return to SISHA, suggested that perhaps he'd done some soul-searching. "I am the first to admit some of the decisions I have made whilst running SISHA, although always made in the best interests of abused people, were wrong."
The admission is unlikely to help him regain friendships he has lost. "Most people won't bother giving Steve the time of day," says one former friend. Many doubt that Gina Rinehart will continue her friendship with SISHA. A spokesperson said she would continue to fund the Hope Scholarship program but it was "immaterial" which organisation would manage the program in future.
Last month, Gina Rinehart visited Cambodia for the second time in two months. She flew in from India, ordered that a box of Belgian chocolates meet her on her arrival and headed to Phnom Penh's grand Raffles Hotel Le Royal. "Rinehart flies in for smackdown with Morrish," Penhpal's Rob Jamieson titled a post on the event. "A showdown is quite possible, that would be fun to watch."
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