In the wake of Western Australia’s public sector corruption scandal, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt has said Aboriginal people in the Kimberley region were flagging missing public money as early as 2011.
Disgraced senior bureaucrat Paul Whyte, 56, was arrested and charged last week with two counts of official corruption for a false invoicing scam that saw public money funnelled into the pockets of Mr Whyte and friend, Jacob Daniel Anthonisz, 43.
After the Warmun community, just over 200km south of Kununurra, flooded in 2011, the Department of Housing (now Department of Communities) oversaw the community rebuild.
Minister Wyatt said suspicions of missing money directly related to Paul Whyte, who was the Department’s General Manager at the time, were raised with him.
“The East Kimberley had a lot of doubts and suspicions around … the Department … when they were managing [the Warmun rebuild],” Minister Wyatt said.
It was later discovered in 2016 that the Department’s Project Manager, Craig Dale had stolen approximately $3 million from the Warmun community during the project. He was later charged with fraud and was sent to jail.
“The [Warmun] rebuild … came on my radar because a lot of money didn’t seem to have hit the ground … Mr Dale got convicted of charges separate to that.”
When Minister Wyatt was on the Public Accounts Committee in 2016, a report was tabled on the Housing Authority’s failure to implement recommendations made in 2012 to increase transparency in spending.
A Hansard report from a 2016 Committee sitting outlines members’ frustrations at the Housing Authority.
“For the Housing Authority to respond to the Public Accounts Committee in such a slack manner on a report that has repeatedly found a lack of control over possible fraud … is inexcusable,” said Member for Belmont at the time, Glenys Godfrey.
Minister Wyatt said in the meeting answers from the Housing Authority were unreliable, contradictory and inconsistent with previous statements.
The Minister also made reference to Mr Dale and Warmun, saying unclear relationships and low-end contracts within the Housing Authority led to Aboriginal communities being ripped off.
Earlier this week, Minister Wyatt said these low-end contracts were being paid by the agency without invoices. The Public Accounts Committee’s 2016 report said they amounted to about $51 million.
Minister Wyatt said the red flags around Mr Whyte may “go back some way” and that he expects the inquiry will uncover many different activities.
A decade in the making
WA Police and the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC), who are jointly investigating the large-scale corruption, have said theft of the public money may have been happening for over a decade.
With the original estimate totalling about $2.5 million, investigating police have now said the total amount stolen could be over $25 million and date as far back as 2008.
It’s alleged Mr Whyte, Assistant Director General of the Department of Communities, created false invoices, transferred public money into company bank accounts, with the money later withdrawn for personal use – including a horse stud in New Zealand.
It was revealed in court last Friday that each payment never exceeded $50,000 so as to avoid the requirement of higher approval within the Department of Communities.
Links have also recently been established between Mr Whyte, Mr Anthonisz and Mr Dale, with reports saying the trio co-owned a racehorse named Hysteria in 2008.
Mr Whyte has been stood down from his role at the Department and an interim Assistant Director General from outside of WA has been appointed.
While the joint investigation by WA Police and CCC is ongoing, Premier Mark McGowan has ordered a separate inquiry into the Housing Authority by Public Sector Commissioner, Sharyn O’Neill.
“If proven, what has come out … is absolutely appalling and would be a complete betrayal of every Western Australian,” Premier McGowan said.
“The Housing Authority is responsible for helping the most vulnerable people in our community and the public rightly expects it to operate with the highest standards of integrity.”
By Hannah Cross