Former Brisbane Broncos and current Newcastle Knights coach Wayne Bennett. Photo: Jonathan Carroll
A $300,000 repayment to the Broncos Leagues Club, thought to have been used for cash payments to players outside the salary cap, has ramifications that could extend to a bid to buy the NRL franchise from owners News Corp and return Wayne Bennett as coach.
The NRL is investigating cash payments totalling $470,000 to Broncos players, but described the serpentine, sometimes undocumented trail as complicated and requiring time to probe.
While the $300,000 repayment may satisfy auditors of the Broncos Leagues Club, it has not placated NRL salary-cap investigators who are concerned about a significant breach.
The Storm were stripped of the 2006 minor premiership (where the Broncos defeated them in the grand final) and the 2007 minor and major premierships for a salary-cap breach of less than $500,000.
Nor has the potential breach escaped the attention of the Australian Securities and Investment Commission, after the Broncos Leagues Club volunteered to the regulator sloppy governance that surrounded the initial $300,000 in payments from its accounts.
Mystery surrounds the source of the $300,000 refunded, although it is believed to have come from Broncos football manager Andrew Gee, who resigned his post and also tendered his resignation from the board of the Broncos Leagues Club shortly after the Brisbane outfit self-reported the potential salary-cap breach on the eve of the first State of Origin match.
The money was repaid through a bank account but took four months to arrive after directors of the Broncos Leagues club questioned Gee on the documentation of the $300,000 payment.
Gee, a former premiership player and long-term servant of the club, is popular with former teammates, many of who believe he is being made a fall guy.
While the NRL has been told Gee may have been profligate in his spending as general manager of football operations, his friends suspect he has taken one for the club. They say the accusation of excessive personal spending is to disguise secret payments to players, where the Broncos Leagues Club was used as a conduit.
An email, which the Herald understands the NRL has seen, would seem to support this. It refers to moneys needed for players, without specifying who.
Gee told the Herald he preferred not to comment.
His close friend and fellow premiership forward, Shane Webcke, also recently resigned from the board of the Broncos Leagues Club, but this is independent of Gee’s actions and concerns a conflict of interest with his private business.
Senior News Ltd executives are aware of the NRL and ASIC investigations and began their own probe within 48 hours of the Broncos reporting the breach, sending their forensic accountants, Deloittes, and lawyers, Allens, to Brisbane.
Salary-cap breaches at the Storm, then owned by News Ltd, together with secret payments made by News Corporation in Britain – revealed in the phone-hacking inquiry – adds to the potential embarrassment and may cause the media company to dispose of its 67 per cent shareholding.
Queensland players celebrating the Maroons' win last week in the third State of Origin match heard a prediction Bennett would return as coach for two years and that his Newcastle assistant, Broncos legend Kevin Walters, would succeed him.
Gee and Webcke are close to Bennett and the trio are friendly with property developer Phil Murphy, who owns 20 per cent of the Broncos.
Bennett has a strained relationship with News Ltd, beginning with his secret agreement with Roosters chairman Nick Politis to coach the Sydney club when enmity still existed between the media company and the ARL over the Super League war.
News Ltd influence also blocked Bennett coaching the Cowboys, before his move to St George Illawarra.
The 64-year-old Bennett has strong support on the Broncos' board following his 20-year reign at the club. Board member Tony Joseph recently flew to Newcastle and is believed to have met with the seven-time premiership coach.
Joseph, a big Bennett supporter, joined the Broncos board when Bennett was set to return to the club after his term with the Dragons. However, Bennett described the salary offer of $950,000 “disrespectful” and signed with Newcastle’s then owner, Nathan Tinkler, for a sum believed to be $1.4 million a year.
While the $300,000 from the Broncos Leagues Club ignited the inquiry, the NRL is understood to have identified a total of $470,000 in cash payments to players believed to represent guarantees of third-party deals, which may not have been forthcoming from sponsors.
Unpaid, promised third-party deals represent the biggest source of friction between players and club management and are the main signal to the NRL of a salary-cap breach.
No Broncos player has come forward to management, complaining of unpaid funds, since Gee’s departure.