Wollongong's aerial patrol struck off charities register

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A national regulator has revoked the charity status of the Illawarra’s shark-spotting aerial patrol, 18 months after claims of financial mismanagement surfaced. 

The decision, handed down on Monday, means the City of Wollongong Aerial Patrol Inc loses access to Commonwealth charity tax concessions, and any donations it collects are no longer tax-deductible. 

The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) – would not reveal details of the impropriety it had uncovered before striking off the Albion Park-based patrol, citing privacy legislation.

However in a statement, its acting commissioner David Locke said only investigations into “the most serious cases” ended with a loss of charity status.

“In instances where our investigations find minor breaches of the ACNC act or governance standards, we work with the charity to resolve these issues with education, guidance and support,” he said. 

“However, when we find severe mismanagement, fraud or deliberate breaches of the ACNC act or governance standards, we will take firm action, including revocation of charity status. 

“Revoking a charity’s status is reserved for the most serious of cases and results in the loss of generous Commonwealth charity tax concessions. Revoked charities are also no longer able to display the ACNC’s registered charity tick.”

Mr Locke said the watchdog received 100 alerts about potential impropriety each month. The aerial patrol is only the 19th charity to lose its status this year.

The revocation has been backdated to July 1, 2013 – the date the ACNC governance standards were put in place. 

Cracks began to show in the patrol’s operation in February/March 2016, when the patrol’s chief pilot stood down, naming rights sponsor Bendigo Bank withdrew its support and details of infighting among outgoing and incoming board members spilled onto the Mercury’s pages.

Allegations of financial mismanagement and fraud within the patrol’s ranks were then laid bare in a damning report that questioned, among other things, how the organisation absorbed $750,000 in international drug money.

The report called into question the structure of the charity and its commercial arms, saying accountability was “impaired” by the duel roles of general manager and president – both then held by Harry Mitchell, who has denied any wrongdoing.

In February this year, a new board led by fisheries management consultant and a volunteer spotter with the patrol for four years, Duncan Leadbitter, announced it would resurrect the service

Contacted on Thursday, Mr Leadbitter said he had stood down from the role three months ago, citing an onerous workload.

The new president, Darryl Schlodder, declined to answer the Mercury’s questions. 

“You couldn’t print our side of the story 18-19 months ago,” he said. 

“There’s no comment and thankyou very much.” 

The patrol’s board has 60 days to object. If they do, it will spark a review of ACNC’s original investigation. Meantime, it loses GST concession, income tax exemption and the fringe benefit tax rebate. 

This story Wollongong’s aerial patrol struck off charities register first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.