A DAMNING report into the conduct of former Bendigo South East College principal Ernie Fleming that the Victorian government had hoped would end two lengthy rumour-ridden investigations, has emboldened the former school leader to continue fighting.
Mr Fleming has labelled as defamatory words used in a media statement prefacing a Victorian Ombudsman report released on Wednesday that found he used his power to wrongly employ and promote family members.
The VO report, tabled in state parliament, also alleged Mr Fleming failed to manage a conflict of interest that ultimately allowed Michael Bulmer and, eventually, his own son Brandt, to direct school bus charter business to a company they owned.
Lastly, Mr Fleming was accused in the VO report of failing to gain school council approval for some expense claims, that he approved some reimbursements to himself and accepted mates rates for private work from a contractor who was working at the school.
But yesterday, an emotional Mr Fleming defended his tenure at BSE, and labelled the VO report unfair, defamatory, insulting and offensive.
He also accused the ombudsman of colluding with the Department of Education and Training, which conducted its own investigation into Mr Fleming, leading him to resign after learning the draft findings in late May.
Mr Fleming yesterday claimed he believed he had been cleared by his DET manager of accusations of nepotism and conflict of interest as they arose in more than 20 anonymous complaints sent to the department from August 2014 until the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission referred the matter to the ombudsman for investigation in August 2016.
“My line manager had investigated those (complaints) a number of times and I was told there was no evidence to support them, external financial audits told me we were compliant with what we were doing, what else was I supposed to do… guess what I was supposed to have done?” Mr Fleming said.
“I have never been in this situation, I have an unblemished record of 40 years and all of a sudden I see a media release calling (my tenure) a fiefdom and everything else, and yet none of that was ever raised with me as a concern.”
Despite finding the regional DET office had failed on a number of occasions to investigate anonymous allegations, and a concession by the regional manager that the department missed opportunities to change behaviour at the college, the VO report makes no recommendations for the department.
VO Deborah Glass said the resignation of Mr Fleming spared her the “need to make the only recommendation I could in the circumstances”.
A statement from the department reiterated the wording of the ombudsman’s media release that Mr Fleming and his lawyer David Schier said was defamatory.
“As the ombudsman notes, nepotism erodes public trust and is unacceptable in any area of the public service,” a department spokesman said.
“While the report made no recommendations, the department acknowledges the findings in relation to its management of Mr Fleming and will reflect on the issues identified to ensure we learn from this process.
“Since these issues occurred, the department has undertaken an extensive integrity reform agenda, which has addressed many of the issues raised in this report.”
It is the procedures that have accompanied the integrity agenda that Mr Fleming has chosen to fight, claiming the Speak Up whistleblowing process and the department’s investigation process failed to provide him natural justice.
“I could have walked away from this but I am just determined principals and their communities aren’t put through this,” he said.
“There has to be procedural fairness there has to be openness and transparency, there has to be simple things such as documentation is available on request.
“There has to be a better way, that is why I have stuck at it, there has to be a fairer way of supporting principals.”
– Sharon Kemp