John Mitchell could stay as chief executive of disabled persons print business Westcare – even if he is convicted of fraud in his trial which began in a Perth court today, with Westcare's president pledging his support at a staff meeting.
Mitchell is charged with using a fake police case file to force former marketing manager Tanya McDonald to resign last year, after she complained about the bullying of disabled staff, primarily by Mitchell's undisclosed girlfriend Nadia Halliday, who Mitchell appointed as general manager.
His trial has just begun at 10am Perth time in the Midland Magistrate’s Court, with Mitchell facing up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to $24,000 if convicted.
Staff say Westcare president Alan Tough has thrown his support behind the embattled chief executive, repeatedly insisting he will stay at his post even if he is found guilty.
However, Mitchell’s office was cleaned out late last week and is still empty today, with general manager of accommodation services Bruce Bowe serving as acting chief.
Tough said at a 90-minute staff meeting on July 23 Mitchell would keep his job regardless of the verdict, and that McDonald was a ‘money grubber’ who was ‘just looking for a payout’, several staff members who attended told ProPrint.
Print estimator Gary Adams said if you had a show of hands who wanted Mitchell to stay, no one would put their hand up. Tough’s reply was: ‘If you don’t like the captain, get out of the canoe’.
At least four other staff spoke against Mitchell staying chief executive, but were ‘shouted down’ by Tough. He also on multiple occasions threatened to ‘shut the whole workshop down’ if staff didn’t ‘shut up and get on with it’.
When contacted, Tough refused to say whether Mitchell would keep his job, or discuss any of the other events.
Tough called the meeting in the wake of a ProPrint special investigation that exposed the legal quandaries of Mitchell and his girlfriend and former Westcare general manager Nadia Halliday.
The fake case file was concocted by Halliday, who was in March sentenced to a one-year intensive supervision order for related fraud charges stemming from her alleged bullying of disabled staff and what staff say is a culture of silencing complaint.
Staff say Mitchell has made a clear effort to ‘be nicer to everyone’ since the article was published, greeting staff in hallways and having good news (and sometimes old) news put on Westcare’s Facebook page.
However, behind closed doors he has sworn that once he is acquitted he will sack any staff who spoke against him. Many staff ProPrint contacted said they could not talk for fear of losing their jobs.
Tough provided ProPrint with the 30-page report of a major DSS audit into Westcare’s operations to assess its compliance with its DSS contract to provide jobs for the disabled in exchange for government grants and subsidies.
The audit, carried out June 1-4, interviews eight unnamed disabled workers and a number of able-bodied staff and gave Westcare full marks in every category.
However, Westcare staff say the audit is deeply flawed as it ignored critical comments by those interviewed and that the required complaint register is ‘nowhere to be found’ at the Nedlands printing plant.
“Most of the employees interviewed at Nedlands had no intellectual capacity to understand what a complaint was let alone make one and the ones who did speak up were ignored and not mentioned,” former disability support worker Kerry Bly says.
Staff also say various other procedures and training programmes are ‘thrown together at the last minute’ before audits and are rarely followed on the ground.
Westcare made a $423,823 profit this year, treble its FY14 total, and revenue is up seven per cent to $6.84m. However, both of these are due to a 27 per cent boost in government subsidies and grants to $2.06m.
The company has received more than $6.7m in government funding since Mitchell became chief executive in May 2011.
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