Two Public Trustee staff colluded with contractors to take $1.65 million from vulnerable Canberrans

Two Public Trustee staff colluded with contractors to take $1.65 million from vulnerable Canberrans

Two Public Trustee staff who defrauded vulnerable Canberrans of an estimated $1.65 million used a combination of collusion with outside contractors, deception and abuse of trust, an investigation has found.

The Public Trustee's office looks after the accounts of people who can't manage them themselves, including thosewith disabilities, people in nursing homes, or people suddenly incapacitated. The office collects their pensions and other income, pays their bills and manages their properties.

Earlier this year the office discovered the fraud, in which $1.65 million had been taken from clients' accounts. The issue is in the hands of ACT Police, with no charges yet laid.

Public Trustee Andrew Taylor told an Assembly committee this week that KPMG had completed two reports into the fraud. Two staff and three or possibly four outsiders had been involved, and ACT Police had succeeded in getting a court order for civil forfeiture of criminal assets of the two former staff and "several people on the outside", including superannuation, in an effort to recover the losses.

The staff had used multiple schemes to extract money from the accounts of clients, including a client credit card. The Public Trustee operates bank cards and credit cards for clients, and Mr Taylor said one of the frauds uncovered had been "the use of this card as if it were this member of staff's own card". The office had now established a register of credit cards, with oversight of managers.


Mr Taylor would not answer this newspaper's questions on the fraud, but in the committee hearing he said KPMG's report had acknowledged the nature of the office's clients, who were sometimes intensely vulnerable, with pressing needs, and were sometimes aggressive and violent, and had dependent relationships with office staff. It also acknowledged the sheer volume of transactions, with hundreds of transactions through client accounts every day. And it had highlighted the minimal rotation of clients among Public Trustee officers, pointing to an "environment which provides the opportunity for those irregular transactions to occur and remain undetected".

The office had since begun to rotate clients among officers to an extent so it did not allow "relationships to build up where they don't need to build up", but had to also take account of the difficult nature of some clients, which only some staff were equipped to handle.

"We would have probably 20 per cent of clients who are very, very difficult people, aggressive, violent, threatening," Mr Taylor said. "We have very regularly taken out workplace protection orders on staff. We've had staff abused and assaulted outside of working hours by people. And so what's necessary is to discover a means by which we can allocate the right staff to the right clients. Some staff take this kind of thing home with them at night, creating other problems. Some staff are very resilient and can handle that kind of thing. So it's unfortunate that some people may end up with a client group of very difficult people, others might end up with a client group of very vulnerable people."

The office had also dissolved its register of contractors for requirementssuch as electrical work, property management, legal services and similar, and this week had written to all providers asking them to detail qualifications, registrations and other information. It was also looking to any relationships contractors had with office staff.

It was reconsidering the practice of sending financial statements to clients, especially to people in nursing homes without family to help.

"Sending a statement of account to those people in a nursing home can bring more problems that it resolves," he said. The office would now send statements only with a manager's say so.

It had also upgraded its business system so staff would "not be able to create items of information in a register" as they could previously.

To date, $858,000 of client money had been repaid, of a probable amount of $1.65 million, all of which would be fully reimbursed, with interest. The repayments were being made by the office's insurer, but would be sought back from fraudsters in the event of criminal charges.

Kirsten Lawson is news director at The Canberra Times

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