State government inquiry into NSW RSL reveals fundraising failures

FORMER BOSS: NSW RSL former president Don Rowe has been living near Armidale while the largest ever probe into the league is underway.
FORMER BOSS: NSW RSL former president Don Rowe has been living near Armidale while the largest ever probe into the league is underway.

The NSW branch of the RSL has not been tracking how public donations have been spent and extensively breached its legal requirements for financial disclosures as a charity, a public inquiry heard on Tuesday.

In an explosive opening statement to the first day of a state government inquiry into the veteran’s charity, counsel assisting, Anthony Cheshire, SC, argued the RSL’s accounting systems had extensive irregularities and that the organisation did not act on concerns about large claims for work expenses from its long-serving former president.

Former NSW RSL boss Don Rowe has been living in Armidale following allegations he spent almost $500,000 on a corporate credit card over six years.

The OAM recipient’s resignation in 2014 was just the beginning before a number of rorting and embezzlement allegations arose throughout the state league.

The government’s inquiry followed exposes such as the withdrawal of more than $200,000 in cash on corporate credit cards by Mr Rowe and the payment of $2.5 million in “consulting fees” to directors of its nursing home charity.

The entire NSW RSL state council stood aside following media reports about irregularities and the organisation, under a new president, James Brown, suspended its fundraising operations in August.

Armidale Sub Branch Secretary Ken Dickins told The Express last month that the fundraising suspension “came completely out of the blue”.

Raffles, barbecues and cake sales were suspended after the new leadership discovered that some of its processes were illegal under the state’s charity laws.

“The problem that has resulted to cease fundraising ... it’s been going on for 40 years and it’s only just now that they’ve noticed the problem,” local Sub Branch President Max Tavener said during an interview with The Express last month.

The inquiry heard that the day before Mr Rowe’s resignation, concerns were raised about the fact that his recent credit card statements showed “large sums” were being paid for mobile phone accounts other than his own.  

“Did Mr Rowe resign voluntarily due to ill health, or was it because he was given an ultimatum … to resign or have an audit of his expenses?” Mr Cheshire asked.  

“At no time during Mr Rowe's 11-year tenure as state president … was any expense … questioned with him at least not until the day of his resignation in November 2014.”

The Express attempted to speak with Mr Rowe in August at his home near Armidale, but he refused to comment.

The inquiry, led by former NSW Supreme Court Justice Patricia Bergin, will continue on Thursday.

This story Inquiry reveals RSL fundraising failures first appeared on The Armidale Express.