Former Principal ran school as 'personal fiefdom'

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The former Principal of Bendigo South East college, Ernest Fleming, abused his position by employing and promoting his wife and son and by facilitating benefits being channelled to companies owned by another son, the Victorian Ombudsman has found.

Tabling her Investigation into three protected disclosure complaints regarding Bendigo South East College in the Victorian Parliament, Ombudsman Deborah Glass said it was a case study in nepotism.

Ernest Fleming employed his wife as Personal Assistant to the Principal, despite there being no record of her applying for the position, and one of his sons as Athlete Development Program Manager, even though there was a more qualified candidate for the role.

In addition, Ernest Fleming employed Michael Bulmer, who initially worked for Bendigo Coachlines before purchasing the company with another of Ernest Fleming’s sons, as the college’s bus coordinator.

Later, Mr Bulmer’s wife took on the college’s bus coordinator role. The bus coordinator role allowed the Bulmers to allocate college business to Bendigo Coachlines, at the expense of other local bus companies. This conduct was authorised and facilitated by Ernest Fleming.

“The investigation found that for many years, Ernest Fleming ran the college as a personal fiefdom, employing and promoting family members, providing substantial benefits to his son’s business partner and companies owned by his son, and using public funds as he saw fit without consultation or approval from the college council,” Ms Glass said.

“His actions showed little regard for department policy, relevant legislation and regulations or for his obligations under the Code of Conduct to avoid conflicts of interest, use his power for authorised purposes, and uphold standards of integrity and financial probity,” she said.

Mr Fleming resigned as Principal in May 2018 after the Department of Education and Training informed him of its decision to terminate his employment, following an internal investigation.

“Ernest Fleming spent many years as an educator and enjoyed an excellent reputation with many in the local community. So how much does his failure to adhere to policy and standards matter?” Ms Glass asked.

“In my view, a great deal. His family and associates obtained substantial private benefits out of public funds, including at the expense of bus operators in the Bendigo region not connected to the family,” she said.

“Parents paid for a sports programme that wrongly claimed to be delivering the mandatory curriculum. His conduct impacted the culture of the college and the careers of numerous past and current teachers and staff.”

Ms Glass said the department should reflect on the failure of its regional office to act earlier, despite having received at least 21 complaints about Mr Fleming’s conduct between August 2014 and February 2016.

“It is important that the department reflect on the conduct identified by the investigation and the regional office’s failure to respond to it appropriately, to ensure such conduct is not allowed to flourish in future,” Ms Glass said.

Read the report: Investigation into three protected disclosure complaints regarding Bendigo South East College

Please note: The identity of the person or people who made complaints about Ernest Fleming and others, leading to this investigation, must not be disclosed. Under section 53(1) of the Protected Disclosure Act 2012 (Vic), it is a criminal offence for a person or body to identify a person who has made an assessable disclosure. This includes the media.

Ms Glass will not be available for interview regarding this investigation, due to its nature and the requirement of parliamentary privilege.

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