Ernie Fleming. Photo: Andrew Perryman.

KAREN Fleming was notified she would have to return to work at Bendigo South East College a fortnight before last week’s release of a Victorian Ombudsman report that accused her husband Ernie, former BSE principal, of finding her a job at the school in an act of blatant nepotism.

Mrs Fleming was working in administration but has not returned to the school since the day almost two years ago when Ernie was stood aside without warning, and asked not to return until notified.

She is so traumatised by the rumours and investigation process that followed, she says she is unable to even drive past the school.

So on September 5, two weeks ago, she resigned.

What then, she asks, is the Victorian Department of Education and Training’s duty of care to her as an employee?

Mrs Fleming has many questions about the events of the past two years, including how it could be that the Flemings were left for months with no information about what was happening in the department that had implications for their futures.

The department said: “Mr Fleming was aware of the department’s investigation when he was suspended from his duties in 2017.

“As an employee of Bendigo South East College, Ms Fleming was entitled to resume her duties in Term 3 irrespective of Mr Fleming’s resignation,” a spokesman added.

Referring to the VO’s report, Mrs Fleming said: “They have probably tried to say they don’t want family working at schools, but schools are family communities”.

“I worked hard at the school, I would have done anything for the students, gone out of my way, that is just the way we were.”

 

Household extension

No one is spared criticism in the extraordinary ombudsman report that suggests Bendigo’s largest junior secondary college was routinely managed by Mr Fleming like it was an extension of his household.

Fleming himself carries the brunt of VO Deborah Glass’s condemnation.

His family and his son’s business partner are the only people named in the report.

Other people, including DET staff, are unnamed and legal action is threatened if their names are published.

Two department managers in the north western regional office didn’t go far enough when they were in a position to investigate complaints from at least five people as early as 2015, Glass wrote.

Glass quotes from testimony of a DET manager that complaints were sometimes communicated in a ranting tone.

Given the last of the relevant events investigated in the VO report happened more than two years ago, most of the people have moved on.

DET testifies it corrected its oversight when it set up an integrity process which included the whistleblower program Speak Up widely condemned by Victorian principals.

But Fleming remains bitter, calling the investigation a witch hunt that he believed could only be staunched by his resignation which he delivered the day he saw DET’s recommendation that he be terminated.

Fleming’s son Adam had resigned as head of BSE’s Athlete Development Program in 2017.

That left the ombudsman with no recommendations to make, and the Victorian government hoping that two years of rumours about what the Flemings had done, about the impact of the investigation on their health and the school’s, was over.

On a weekend afternoon two months ago, supporters of Mr Fleming gathered in a room hired at a Bendigo hotel to pay tribute to the 40-year educator who had resigned from a position he had only weeks before committed to resuming believing he would be exonerated in the department investigation.

In the months leading up to the gathering, supporters carried out a letter writing campaign that urged education minister James Merlino to hurry up the investigation.

It had been 18 months since Fleming had stood aside, the school had been run by acting principal Dale Pearce who usually heads up Bendigo Senior Secondary College, and an executive principal filled in after he returned to BSSC.

The campaign worked in as far as it moved Mr Merlino to urge department investigators to finish up.

The ombudsman’s report that followed earlier this month says the large amount of documentary evidence, the complexity of the case and extensions granted to Fleming to respond are behind why its investigation took so long – two years in total to complete.

Mr Fleming, on the other hand, believes it is because the investigations took so long to find the evidence to use against him.

His lawyer David Schier argues that despite the two year investigation and two audits ordered by the department, there was no evidence Mr Fleming received the benefit of a single dollar.
“(The VO report) claims that Mr Fleming ran the college as his personal fiefdom and then wholly failed to show, in its lengthy document where Mr Fleming benefited personally, financially or otherwise from the allegations so made,” Mr Schier said.

The ombudsman found Mr Fleming used his “considerable power and autonomy as principal, which included the final say in recruitment decisions, to employ and promote” his wife Karen and son Adam, and unilaterally increase his son’s salary.

Mr Fleming responded that he sat on neither recruitment panel and neither Adam nor Karen reported directly to him.

There was also a finding that Mr Fleming hired Mike Bulmer as a regional bus coordinator in May 2013, and made Mr Bulmer responsible for booking bus charter work for the college, despite knowing Mr Bulmer had a conflict of interest as business development manager at Bendigo Coachlines.

Mr Bulmer and Brandt Fleming later bought Bendigo Coachlines, to which they continued to direct college funds. Mr Fleming responds that he disclosed the relationships to the school council and to the department.

And on the charge of misuse of public resources, the ombudsman said a department audit identified a pattern of unexplained and insufficiently documented reimbursements to Mr Fleming from public funds.

“He systemically failed to seek approvals for expenditure from the college council, failed to provide records to demonstrate the legitimate business nature of expenses… and did not provide the college council with the advice it required to fulfil its financial oversight obligations,” the report said.

Mr Fleming responded that he could have shown evidence for all expenses if only he had been allowed access to his documentation during the investigation.

As it stands, he hasn’t stepped foot at BSE since he was stood aside.

 

Cleared

Mr Fleming said he believed he had been cleared by the department of all conflict of interest allegations as they arose via complaints sent by anonymous sources, some as early as 2014.

His department manager recorded that she was satisfied Mr Fleming was at arm’s length from the appointment of his wife and son.

She told the complainants as such, and wrongly advised they needed to write a complaint letter with their names attached.

Speak Up, which allows for complainants anonymity, was a process they also used. What is overwhelmingly true for Mr Fleming out of all this, and the most important factor for him, is that the school he was managing lived up to what was prescribed in the Bendigo Education Plan, even if he had to spend hours of his own time making it so.

Mr Fleming’s wife and son also volunteered at the school before they were hired. Mrs Fleming initially started volunteering there to keep an eye on her husband after he suffered a heart attack.

She said someone else suggested she apply for the job at BSE.

When it comes to the success of the school, for which Mr Fleming won accolades, his supporters also believe the end justified the means.

The Bendigo Weekly received anonymous letters of complaint about Mr Fleming in mid 2016, just about when, unknown to the paper, the VO was about to start its investigation.

Two years later, a separate spate of letters was received, this time praising Mr Fleming’s dedication to BSE students and their education.

The sentiment of the letters could not be more different.

Addressed to the DET, an unknown author wrote in August 2016, and sent a copy to the Bendigo Weekly: “The teachers and students of this school deserve your full attention in cleaning up this mess”.

“I have bent over backwards sending you information yet you treat the students and teachers of this school with contempt.

“You just do not care.

“Ernie Fleming has shown himself to be unfit to carry out the duties of a principal yet you do nothing.

“He spends millions of dollars of taxpayer funds setting up the ADP run by his own son while his wife is his (personal assistant).

“I have no idea if Ernie has any real idea that what he is doing is wrong.”

“I think that he may have convinced himself that whatever he does is always for the benefit of students that he has completely lost sight of what a school is all about.”

Notifying parents of the release of the OV report last week, BSE’s executive principal Julie Roberton said the school had failed to recruit a permanent principal in the first round of advertising.