Glen Ella speaks out after $20 million kids charity collapse

He is a regular at charity functions, an Indigenous mentor who played for his country. But Glen Ella has started avoiding social events because people keep asking him what is going on.

"The more that's written, the more they think I'm a crook," says the former Wallaby who played four Tests and continues to coach internationally.

Four years ago, Ella began work with a children's care charity he would go on to lead as its chief executive.

But in June, the charity collapsed after being denied more funding. Now it is in liquidation, accused of a $20 million misappropriation of public money.

Revelations in the Herald showed men who had served time for murder and drug trafficking were acting as subcontractors, receiving millions of dollars.

Liquidators and the government department responsible want to examine directors in court to find out what happened to the money.

Has any been misappropriated?

"No," Ella, 58, says. "No look, from my perspective, and I can only tell you from where I sit at the front of the office, no it wasn't."

He has decided to break a five-month silence.

In a rented meeting room in Lindfield in Sydney's north, Ella sits down with the Herald, agreeing to address the allegations for the first time.

He says he was only ever motivated to give back.

A new direction

When he was feeling "suffocated" by a corporate job in 2012, his tax accountant Kevin Casey told him about Guardian Youth Care, a Sydney not-for-profit that looked after some of the state's most traumatised children.

"There are 22,000 kids in out-of-home care and 40 per cent of them are Aboriginal," Ella says. "This is going to be the forgotten generation."

Guardian Youth Care received as much as $7 million in annual funding to provide full-time care for up to 27 children in houses across western Sydney.

Former residents and staff have described deprivation in the houses, including a lack of money for food, and staff working double or triple shifts. Shannon Smith, who lived in a Seven Hills house, has said it was "quite appalling".

Ella, who became chief executive in 2014, says the conditions he saw on monthly visits were "pretty good".

"Any NGO with these type of kids, it is a tough gig. When I would see the houses, I would go in every room, go straight to the fridge, open it up, see what was there to make sure."

But Ella says he was probably only making decisions at Guardian Youth Care 50 per cent of the time in later years, spending the rest on the Indigenous foundation Ellavation he set up with his sports star siblings Gary, Mark and Marcia.

Who was making decisions when he was not there?

While he had retained authority, he says with "major decisions, it was probably Roy."

The subcontractors with criminal pasts

Roy Bijkerk, a former boxer, served time in jail in the early 2000s for conspiracy to import several kilograms of cocaine. Out of jail, he helped set up Guardian Youth Care, which was initially a for-profit company.

And while he has not been a director of the charity for more than a decade, Bijkerk has controlled the companies to which Guardian Youth Care paid millions of dollars in subcontracts.

The charity has paid the Bijkerk family company Alpha Support Services $4 million in annual management fees in recent years.

When the Herald contacted Bijkerk about his role, a response came from a director of the charity sitting in on the interview with Ella, Paul Clarke. He replied that Ella "made all major decisions" and while Bijkerk may have made recommendations to the board, the board would then decide.

Since 2013, $360,000 a year was paid to a separate company, controlled by Bijkerk and his business partner, the former standover man Ned Bikic, who was found guilty of a 1998 murder.

Ella says he sometimes saw Bikic around the office but the chief executive was not sure of his exact role.

Was he aware of the criminal records of Bijkerk and Bikic?

"When I jumped in, no I didn't," Ella says.

When he found out, did it matter?

"No, again from my perspective, they were there - well especially Roy, I don't know much about Ned - but they were there for the right reasons. They were there to look after the kids."

The Department of Family and Community Services has characterised the unauthorised subcontracts to the Bijkerk and Bikic companies as a $19.6 million misappropriation, according to creditors' reports.

The liquidator, BRI Ferrier, says it had been unable to establish how the subcontractors spent the money. A 2016 report by the auditing firm Deloitte pointed to financial irregularities and conflicts of interest.

Ella, who has signed off on the financial accounts since 2014, says he did not know the funding agreement with the department forbade subcontracting and had relied on experienced staff.

"I just trust the people that we've got systems in place and those systems are working," he says.

Following the money

On financial questions, Ella sometimes defers to a man sitting close by at the meeting room table, Paul Clarke, the accountant who served as a director of both the charity and the subcontractors, sometimes at the same time.

"It will be proved that there was nothing untoward happening with those funds," Clarke says.

He goes on: "Because someone doesn't know where some money has been spent, I think it's a very dangerous thing to say it's been misappropriated."

Clarke, who co-signed the funding agreement in 2012 before Ella joined, says he was rushed to sign in an afternoon and had no time to read it all.

He describes years of conflict with the department over unpaid bills for extensive household damages, unpaid staffing allowances and lost income from a lack of referrals.

"There were substantial amounts that were withheld for vacant beds," he says. The Deloitte report found the department owed $332,000 but the directors have claimed it was up to $2.3 million.

Clarke says the charity was forced to turn to "friends of the organisation" for interest-free loans.

These private companies, several of which were controlled by Bijkerk, lent $1.4 million to the charity that was never repaid, according to the liquidator's estimate.

But Guardian Youth Care has also allegedly lent out substantial amounts of money, including nearly $686,000 to Alpha Support Services, the Bijkerk family subcontractor.

That company now says it owes no such amount and the loan record must be an error, although the amount has shown up on the charity's records since at least 2012.

Clarke, who was a director of the same subcontractor "temporarily", for four years, says the loan was an old arrangement from when Guardian Youth Care operated for profit. Ella says he did not know about it.

As for another $899,000 the charity allegedly lent, Ella says he had not known about that either, while Clarke says the liquidator was not accounting for it properly.

"You're being mislead by them," he tells the Herald. "They are just trying to make something out of nothing, make a story."

The liquidator, BRI Ferrier, strongly rejected the suggestion, saying the $899,000 was "advanced to related parties" and represented "a number of potential transactions of interest."

It has referred Guardian Youth Care to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission for an alleged failure to hand over documents, a claim the charity directors dispute.

While noting the subcontractors have provided some documents, both Clarke and Ella say it would help if the companies provided documents to show where the money went.

Lost focus

Does Ella think he exercised enough oversight of the charity, which went bust when its funding was not renewed in March?

"No," he says, explaining how his focus split between out of home care and other pursuits, such as coaching rugby.

"With a sector that's so important, there should have been more focus on that and not the other things.

"I put up my hand, I should have done it, been a lot more studious. It's led to this. It's terrible that we've been shut down."

But Ella does not regret joining the charity board.

"Even today, having gone through all this mess, I think it was still a good move. I get a lot of satisfaction from the things that we did with the kids."

This story Glen Ella speaks out after $20 million kids charity collapse first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.