'Nepotism so blatant as to beggar belief' — senior official explains why she did it

By The Mandarin

June 19, 2017

A senior Victorian public official hired not one, but two of her sons to her team after they falsified their CVs and changed their names to conceal the relationship, an independent investigation found.

The senior official, Mary Powderly-Hughes, formerly the CIO of Victoria’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade, gave a number of excuses to different people: her new job was unexpectedly challenging; union members were already causing her problems; she needed someone she trusted.

An anonymous whistleblower made a disclosure to corruption watchdog IBAC, which referred the matter to the Victorian Ombudsman for investigation.

On the day Powderly-Hughes was interviewed for the investigation, in January this year, she resigned her position. Her two sons’ employment were terminated. MFB says it will refer the matter to Victoria Police.

It wasn’t the first time she had done this. There is evidence Powderly-Hughes had inappropriately hired one of her sons at another government agency — Parks Victoria — as well, the report claims.

Ombudsman Deborah Glass said nepotism cases were often caused by a misguided sense of doing the wrong thing for what the offender thinks are the ‘right’ reasons — like saving the government money — but she doesn’t see the ‘right’ reasons in this case: “This was a case of deception where the family nest was feathered, plain and simple.”

“My office has seen countless examples of nepotism over the years – all of which undermine public confidence in government ensuring it has the best people to do the job – but rarely do they display such calculated behaviour.”

“The facts of the case are that a senior public official at the Metropolitan Fire Brigade hired her son, not declaring the relationship, having falsified his CV and coached him prior to interview, three weeks after he changed his name to conceal the relationship.

“After giving him a pay rise and moving him into a permanent role, she then hired her second son, also falsifying his CV and ‘interviewing’ him at her home after he, too, had changed his name to conceal the relationship.”

‘Job from Hell’

The first son, David, explained that he changed his name at the suggestion of his mother:

“In about late June / early July Mary said to me that she had walked into the job from Hell and needed help… She said that it would be a good idea to change my name, as she already had enough trouble with the union members in her team.”

Powderly-Hughes explained that she knew David was looking for work and suggested he apply: “I knew he could do it, and I knew absolutely that I could trust him, so that was the main attraction.”

She confirmed the name change was her idea: “That was my suggestion because I said I’d already had enough problems with the union… I figured if he came in with the name ‘Hughes’ [the union] would suss something out pretty quickly.”

She then approached recruitment agency Hudson about a contract position in her team, and suggested “David Hewson” as a good candidate for the role:

“His name’s Dave Hewson and it would be 3 months at Burnley. He wants $500/day which was more than I wanted to pay… I’ll get him to send you his CV.”

The investigation could not find evidence that David was interviewed prior to commencing in the contract role. Both mother and son told investigators they felt he was qualified. David said the results proved it was appropriate:

“We’ve proven that we can do the job. At the end of the day, we’re there to run the business as a business … I knew I could do the job and as I stated, Mary wanted someone she could trust to do the job, turn the place around. That’s what we did and people didn’t like that, unfortunately.”

Official: unions to blame

Powderly-Hughes told the investigators that repeated contract extensions for her son, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, was the fault of the United Firefighters Union. She claimed it was her intention to advertise three positions, including the one David would eventually fill, but was prevented by the union.

The total cost to MFB for the contracted position for less than two years was $266,060.

As both mother and son had listed another public sector agency, Parks Victoria, as their previous employer, the investigators looked into their records there and found a similar situation. David was suggested by his mother to recruitment agency Randstad, and like the Hudson arrangement, nobody else knew they were family. The total cost to Parks Victoria for the six-month contract was $74,540.

Where there is smoke, there is fire

The whistleblower was tipped off that something was wrong when they saw a contractor very quickly get a rate rise, and began to suspect the relationship was quite close.

The investigation was already underway when Powderly-Hughes’ other son, Barry, was hired to backfill David’s role.

The investigation found there were numerous instances where processes, if followed, could have uncovered the truth, including criminal record checks that weren’t done — David had served a custodial sentence during a period where his CV claimed he worked for Telstra — and reference checks. But in the end it was a whistleblower making an official disclosure to IBAC that got the ball rolling.

The case serves as a salient reminder of the importance of disclosers acting on a suspicion something is awry in their workplace, Glass added. She urged public sector leaders to create an environment in which conflict of interest policies are embedded in organisational culture.

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