An anti-corruption inquiry has heard that the mother and daughter at the centre of an alleged vocational training scam referred to students as “sausages” to go through the “sausage machine”.
Training company Taytell received around $2.2 million in public funding to subsidise training for staff at a range of companies through two TAFE institutions.
But students enrolled in the Certificate IV in Engineering said they had only received a few hours of instruction, far short of the 1400 hours required to qualify, the first day of an Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission examination heard on Tuesday.
The investigation, known as Operation Lansdowne, involved “suspected serious corruption” touching on a range of public institutions, including South West TAFE, Bendigo Kangan TAFE, V/Line, as well as several companies, said Counsel Assisting Ian Hill QC.
“IBAC has found evidence suggesting a sustained pattern of suspicious conduct involving a group of people employed in, or contracted by, the Victorian TAFE and transport sectors, and involving the flow of millions of dollars of public funds to some of those individuals and to entities associated with them.
“The evidence found by IBAC so far gives rise to serious concerns that some of these individuals have, over several years, been able to exploit weaknesses in these industry sectors and perhaps to influence the conduct of a number of public officials in order to derive significant financial benefits for themselves and for their friends and family,” he stated in his opening address.
“Serious concerns exist as to the company’s legitimate entitlement to those funds and as to the repetitive pattern of TayTell’s third-party contractual arrangements across a number of TAFE institutions and private-sector businesses. These factors combine to make the circumstances exceptional and concerning.”“Although there had been plans for someone to come and check, no-one had ever made it to Clayton.”
Taytell owner Rebecca Taylor and her daughter Heather Snelleksz enrolled family members in the course and are alleged to have enrolled people who were not eligible for public funding. Taytell submitted enrolments that incorrectly recorded a group of prospective students as Jetstar employees, including false Jetstar email addresses. Taylor blamed this on an administrative error.
In a text message exchange suggesting enrolling some family members, Taylor wrote: “Let’s do it and get the money.”
The public examination heard that Taylor’s brother in law called her after discovering he had been enrolled in the course as an employee of utility company Zinfra, despite working at a lavender farm. The brother in law has told IBAC the course offered no benefit or interest to him at all, and that his career was heading in a different direction. Taylor maintains he was never enrolled as a Zinfra employee.
Different versions of two invoices with varying billable training hours and dollar amounts were shown. Taylor said the changes were due to South West TAFE informing her how many hours she was entitled to claim for under the state framework. Taylor also said the Department of Education and Training had never checked any of her students’ hours.
The place of instruction under that agreement was Clayton, around 300km from Warrnambool, where the TAFE is located. Hill noted South West TAFE because it “is geographically about as far from Clayton as you can get in Victoria”, making it difficult to oversight Taytell’s activities. Although there had been plans for someone to come and check, no-one had ever made it to Clayton, said Taylor.
The examination was shown a reference letter written by the daughter, Heather Snelleksz, for her mother, Rebecca Taylor, which did not disclose their relationship, stating that Snelleksz was “truly inspired” by Taylor’s training ability. The letter was presented as part of the evidence Taylor needed to become fully qualified as a trainer.
The hearing was also presented with an assessment booklet that was completed and seemingly signed off by Taylor before the student had begun working at Zinfra.
The sausage machine
Many text messages between Taylor and her daughter made references to sausages and a sausage machine, which Hill argued showed they were churning students through to make money.
In one text her daughter said the company had hit “1m sausages”.
In another message thread discussing filling out forms, Taylor wrote: “Let’s start the sausage machine.”
Taylor explained this was probably a reference to the barbecue they were planning for the graduation ceremony.
“It must have been a very slow sausage machine if you had to start it six months early,” Hill responded.
“I find that insulting,” Taylor said. “It’s well documented we were going to have a graduation ceremony.”
The hearing is continuing.