A 13-day corruption inquiry into alleged false vocational education enrolments and improper hiring practices has wrapped up in Melbourne, putting on display a series of failings across several public institutions.
The public hearings into Operation Lansdowne covered in an incredible amount of detail — with the transcript running to 2176 pages — claims that Rebecca Taylor, and her company Taytell, received $2.2 million in public funding for engineering training that never took place.
Taylor, her husband and her daughter forged enrolment and assessment documents for people who were either unaware they were ostensibly studying a certificate typically undertaken full time for one year, or were relatives or friends of Taylor, the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission heard.
In the final week of hearings Alan Clifford, who was offered an unadvertised, high-paying job without completing background checks at V/Line, was unable to explain why he was paid $18,500 by Taytell a few days after his good friend Rebecca Taylor was hired as a consultant at the public rail company.
The story certainly traverses many of the typical integrity risks: most of those apparently involved are either related to someone else or have friendships born out of working together in previous roles that would have given insights into the weak points in the system.
And those weaknesses certainly did exist: government cuts to TAFE funding and the move towards far less regulated private sector training providers created a situation where unscrupulous companies could take advantage of institutions unused to such contracting, with smaller regional TAFEs in particular struggling to stay across the risks.
Witnesses have outlined how the TAFEs that contracted Taytell to deliver the training had no real oversight of whether the education was being delivered, with repeated failures to even visit the sites where training was supposedly taking place.
The minimal checks that existed at South West TAFE failed after being put in the hands of Taylor’s friend Maurice Molan, who seemingly went out of his way to prevent scrutiny of the agreement. He was fired for gross misconduct after it was discovered he secretly approved the qualification Taylor required to teach the course, despite her having already been found not to be competent in the field.
Taytell, in receipt of significant amounts of public money, was effectively overseeing itself.
Worthless providers may not have broken the law
This alleged scam covered by IBAC was only the most egregious of the problems to come out of reforms to vocational education and training. There are plenty of other stories around of companies complying with the rules of the game while essentially delivering worthless education to vulnerable people. Governments have realised the errors of this system and moved to tighten it up; institutions involved in the hearings have said they have adjusted their own processes to prevent a re-run.
While Taylor insisted, as the first and last witness to appear, that she had done nothing untoward, various people enrolled in the Certificate IV in Engineering said they had not been aware they were undertaking the course. Many were enrolled as employees of utility company Zinfra, despite some not being employees, and the company being unaware its staff were supposedly undertaking the training.
Even if the paper trail suggests otherwise, it’s often possible within organisations with distributed authority to pass the buck on to someone else — or at least try. Yet Taylor was unable to explain why the assessment papers for several people who were not Zinfra employees recorded that testing had taken place at Clayton, the location of Zinfra’s offices. She also blamed the enrolment of people who had never worked for Jetstar as Jetstar employees — complete with individual Jetstar email addresses — on an admin error.
Taylor herself claimed many of the problematic documents apparently written by her must have been authored by someone else — but could not think who — despite the signature looking, to the untrained eye, remarkably similar to her own.
Investigators prove their worth to taxpayers
As with previous the investigation into the Department of Education and Training’s failed Ultranet software system, the inquiry heard covertly recorded discussions. This included a conversation between Taylor and her associate Margaret Jarvie seemingly trying to work out what story they would tell investigators.
Memorably, there were also included a moment of near-levity as counsel assisting Ian Hill QC suggested text messages between Taylor and her daughter Heather about ‘sausages’ and the ‘sausage factory’ were referring to students and the fake enrolment operation, with Taylor insisting they had been discussing a barbecue that was to take place five months later.
The commission will now continue some investigations in private before reporting to parliament before the end of the year. Any decision on whether criminal charges are laid would come after the agency delivers its findings. Evidence given at IBAC cannot be used in a criminal case, which is thought to make it easier to uncover what can often be a rather complex truth.
The inquiry, which has looked extensively at the operations of a private company receiving public money, wrapped up as the New South Wales government announced it would not give the state’s auditor general so-called “follow the dollar” powers to investigate private companies in receipt of government funds. Victoria passed a new law to hand follow the dollar powers to its auditor last year.