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Indigenous community wants to know where ATLA corporation money has gone

ABC Business logoABC Business 2/05/2021 Adele Ferguson, Chris Gillett and Deborah Snow
a person standing in front of a building: Leonie Brady says she asked ATLA for help when she had cancer - and again when her grandchild had cancer - and did not receive any. (ABC News: Tom Hancock) © Provided by ABC Business Leonie Brady says she asked ATLA for help when she had cancer - and again when her grandchild had cancer - and did not receive any. (ABC News: Tom Hancock)

A forensic investigation into one of the country's most prominent Indigenous corporations has found more than $1 million flowing to "certain family groups", millions more unaccounted for and glaring holes in its paperwork, a year after its directors were removed and special administrators appointed.

The Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association (ATLA) was set up 20 years ago to look after land, culture and native title for the Adnyamathanha people in South Australia - with the aim of preventing poverty.

But the community is in turmoil as they seek answers to where the money has gone.

The Indigenous regulator, the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC), removed ATLA's directors and appointed special administrators to ATLA in March last year after identifying wide-ranging "chronic and severe problems" including in spending and governance.

ATLA is one of a growing number of Indigenous organisations facing serious questions as calls for a royal commission into the operation of native title, the Indigenous corporations and the regulator grow louder.

Regina Johnson, who agreed to speak up after years of silence, said, "You don't know where the money is. You see all these dollar signs, where does it go?"

Another, Leonie Brady, said she asked for help when she was diagnosed with cancer, but was knocked back.

"I was a cancer patient in 2016. I asked for help and they said they just didn't have any money to help."

She said her grandchild was sent to Sydney after being diagnosed with Leukaemia. "We asked for help for him for Leukaemia. They never gave him nothing, a little baby. We felt so let down."

'We have seen it before'

The head of the regulator, Selwyn Button, said the problems at ATLA were not unique.

There are 3,300 Indigenous corporations and of those the top 500 generated $2 billion a year from mining royalties, government grants and other business interests. Mr Button said some of them were more complex and opaque than ATLA.

"I must stress that as a regulator that works in the space of focusing on corporate governance failures, we have seen it before, and we have seen in other corporations," he said.

ORIC is considering a number of options to try and bring transparency to ATLA as well as its separate trust, Rangelea, which is estimated to have tens of millions of dollars flow through it from uranium mining royalties on Adnyamathanha native title land. 

"What we have seen so far is that there is very limited oversight of the activities of Rangelea over a long period of time," he said.

Options could include an application to the courts for a court appointed inspector to investigate Rangelea, a request to former ATLA directors to provide documents or face prosecution if they decline, or seeking approval from the Adnyamathanha traditional owners to amend the master trust to bring it under the ATLA umbrella to improve transparency and accountability. 

Mr Button slammed "professionals" who enabled complex structures to be erected around native title which made it "extremely difficult for traditional owners to understand ... how they are supposed to be accessing benefits".

'Trying to create mischief'

Some members of the Adnyamathahna community have resisted the probe by ORIC and its investigators.

Chief among the opponents of the probe has been Vince Coulthard, a long-time former chair of ATLA and CEO, who has accused ORIC of "racism" and incompetence.

"There's a lot of mud slung at ATLA because people ... [are] listening to dissident dissatisfied little ... people and I think that's wrong," he said.

He said ATLA was a "very successful" professional organisation and the administrators were still in there after more than a year because "they're trying to find a problem with ATLA which they can't find yet". 

In April, a new administrator was appointed to ATLA with a handover to a new board by the end of June.

"They couldn't find it in the last 13 months. That's what they're digging for and they're trying to ... create this mischief," Mr Coulthard said.

Adele Ferguson is an investigative journalist and columnist with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. .

Watch this story tonight on 7.30 on ABC TV and iview.


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