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NACC: Veterans’ Affairs boss dismissed misconduct complaint against herself

by Stuart McCarthy | Jul 3, 2024 | Government, Latest Posts

Senate hearings reveal a senior Veterans’ Affairs official dismissed a misconduct complaint against herself while managing a $2m BUPA contract which was referred to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC). Stuart McCarthy reports on the escalating scandal in Veterans Affairs.

A Senate Estimates hearing has revealed that the national manager of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) ‘Open Arms’ veteran and family counselling service dismissed a misconduct complaint against herself “on behalf of the Minister”, while in a previous senior DVA role managing a $2.1 million “comprehensive health assessments” contract to the health care provider BUPA.

The BUPA contract is the subject of “numerous” referrals to the National Anti-Corruption Commission by at least two different complainants.

Tasmanian Senator and former soldier Jacqui Lambie last night grilled DVA Secretary Alison Frame and other senior officials in a Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Estimates hearing. The hearing took place against the backdrop of the Defence and Veteran Suicide Royal Commission, which has already exposed the department’s “toxic culture” and is due to hand down its final report in early September.

Lambie said numerous written misconduct allegations and corruption complaints have been made against one of the department’s most senior officials, who she named under Parliamentary privilege. The complaints relate to the official’s management of a $2.1 million dollar contract to BUPA and its “consultation sessions” for a program announced by then Veterans Affairs Minister Darren Chester in the 2019 Federal Budget. The program purportedly to conduct “comprehensive health checks” for a group of Australia’s most vulnerable veterans.

One of the affected veterans seeking to be involved in the consultation sessions emailed Chester on 22 July 2020, alleging the DVA official:

“… has admitted that she has been monitoring me on social media. I do not feel safe and have no faith that she would accurately record the conversation or report my views to the BUPA team. I am asking for your direct intervention Minister.”

Two days later, the official who was the subject of the complaint, wrote to the complainant “on behalf of the Minister” and dismissed the complaint against herself.

Even more alarming allegations, included in the NACC complaint cited by Lambie, are that the official cyber-stalked and gaslit numerous veterans who complained of conflicts of interest involving Professor Jane Burns – a central figure in the billion-dollar PwC/DVA “veteran centric reform” imbroglio – who was employed by BUPA while chairing a DVA national advisory committee.

Why pay $1m when you can pay PwC $30m, and help yourself to free IP?

The NACC complaint alleges the senior DVA official:

… stalked them on social media then sent them unsolicited emails designed to gaslight them as dangerously mentally ill, with the intention of triggering their deaths by suicide.

The official has since been promoted to national manager of the Open Arms veteran and family counselling service.

Pushed to the brink

Lambie asked the DVA mandarins testifying to the Senate hearing if the official “has been stood aside until the investigation is done, or what is happening here?” After the Chief Operations Officer pointed out that she would “not be privy to” NACC investigations and Lambie pressed the question about the subject of the complaint acting “on behalf of the Minister,” Frame replied:

“Senator, everything you’re referring to is from 2020 … When I commenced as Secretary in January 2023, I was obviously informed about anything on foot, any current investigations into current complaints against staff, but I would not be looking at anything historical that pre-dated that which I was briefed about at the time I assumed the role.”

Speaking to MWM on the condition of anonymity, the source of the 2020 complaint to Chester says “I felt like I was being bullied by one person with an ill-informed opinion, blacklisted unfairly and without right of reply.”

The 16-year Australian Army veteran became seriously ill when they returned from East Timor, where they were given the controversial anti-malarial drug mefloquine during one of the Army Malaria Institute’s anti-malarial drug trials in East Timor at the turn of the century. The veteran said when they received the reply from the DVA official purportedly “on behalf of” Chester:

It pushed me to the point of suicide.

US drug Mefloquine and vet suicide epidemic

Developed by the U.S. military in the 1970s and 80s and widely used by armies deployed in tropical areas since the 1990s, mefloquine is one of the known contributory factors in the international veteran suicide epidemic, including in Australia. Veterans continue to struggle to access appropriate specialist care due to accusations of malingering or misdiagnosis with post-traumatic stress disorder or other psychiatric illnesses.

Professor Jane Quinn from Charles Sturt University told MWM “Mefloquine is a known neuro-toxicant that can cause severe or chronic neuropsychiatric symptoms in some people, including suicidal ideation and completed suicide, even at therapeutic doses.”

The career neurotoxicology researcher, advocate and military widow has published numerous peer-reviewed papers and provided expert testimony to official inquiries in Australia, the U.K. and Canada on the toxic effects of mefloquine, particularly among military veterans. “That this drug’s adverse effects have been underestimated in their negative impact on military personnel in both war and peacetime operations is a shameful chapter in our international military history,” says Quinn.

Official ADF medical records from the source of the misconduct complaint include neuro-imagery showing they had sustained a brain injury consistent with decades of research on mefloquine’s neurotoxic adverse effects after they were given mefloquine during the Army drug trial in East Timor.

Veterans’ pleas fall on deaf ears

Advocates have been pleading for a decade with Defence and DVA officials to conduct a dedicated outreach and rehabilitation program for affected veterans and their families. In 2016, former soldier Chris Stiles took his own life weeks after begging then Australian Defence Force (ADF) surgeon-general Tracy Smart for help at a public forum in Townsville.

Another soldier involved in the same series of drug trials, former Army medic David Whitfield, pleaded with current Veterans’ Affairs Minister Matt Keogh when he appeared with his wife Alison in a live interview on the ABC’s QandA program last year. Mr Whitfield died by suicide several months ago.

Correspondence including emails between Smart, DVA and other Defence officials obtained by MWM suggest former DVA official Dylan Kurtz was involved in the inception of the BUPA program while employed as a ministerial advisor to Chester in 2019.

DVA officials duck for cover

When contacted by MWM, Kurtz, who has since moved to Services Australia, said, “I would recommend you refer questions regarding this government decision to the media team at DVA.” The DVA media team did not respond to MWM‘s written queries. DVA Repatriation Commissioner Kahlil Fegan declined our interview request last week.

In a 5 March 2019 email to a DVA official, Smart said of Chester’s budget announcement, “We sensed that the [minister’s office] was looking for a way to appease the concerns” of ADF veterans who were adversely affected by mefloquine and other anti-malarial drugs during their ADF service. According to U.S. and European drug safety regulators, mefloquine is able to cause “lasting or permanent” neurological or psychiatric side effects or “different kinds of permanent brain damage” in a significant minority of users.

Smart has since been employed as a senior academic at the Australian National University. DVA documents also show that one of her senior colleagues at ANU was invited to participate in “clinical advisory workshops” for the BUPA program on the basis of her expertise in “medically unexplained symptoms,” while academics such as Quinn with published research on the toxic effects of mefloquine were excluded.

Another Defence senior medical advisor involved in the clinical advisory workshops emailed her colleagues in September 2019 to raise concerns the BUPA program would undermine the continuity of care for the affected veterans, arguing:

“The intent is to improve engagement with the health care system and appropriate care to optimise their health and wellbeing. … There is a risk that their care may become even more fragmented.”

Current ADF surgeon-general Sonya Bennett was the Army Malaria Institute’s research manager during the anti-malarial drug trials, and co-authored a number of the clinical trial reports published in medical journals.

Chester and Burns

MWM also contacted Chester for comment last week, but he did not respond. Burns has previously denied involvement in the BUPA contract. She has also previously declined to respond to our queries on the department’s management of the “veteran centric reform” program.

Paid to Not Reform: Veterans’ Affairs chucks $73m at PwC to dodge Royal Commission

Former Army officer and military lawyer Dr Glenn Kolomeitz says the handling of the complaint against the DVA official “beggars belief” and is “indicative of the sort of conduct evidenced at the Defence and Veteran Suicide Royal Commission” Kolomeitz, who lobbied for a Royal Commission over many years, represented or advised witnesses who have testified at the Royal Commission and dozens of DVA clients including abuse survivors. He told MWM:

“DVA has certainly come a long way, and ongoing systemic and process reform is clear, but this matter shows there are still people in that department who have not embraced positive change. Our veteran community, including future generations of veterans, cannot afford a return to the bad old days.”

Director of Flinders University’s Open Door research initiative, Professor Ben Wadham, says the documents revealed in the Estimates hearing reflect an overall atmosphere of tension between DVA officials and their clients. Although he was unable to comment on the specifics of the complaints and says his experiences with senior DVA and Open Arms officials had been generally positive, Wadham explained:

“Among DVA staff, there are some who lack empathy, have inadequate training, suffer excessive workloads, or have a poor understanding of the needs of vulnerable veterans.”

Institutional abuse

Co-author of the forthcoming book Warrior Soldier Brigand on institutional abuse in the ADF, Wadham told MWM that although DVA is a public service institution rather than a military one, evidence from the Royal Commission and previous inquiries shows “a degree of institutional culpability in veteran deaths and trauma over time,” citing the Robodebt scheme as an example of how “institutions can be abusive.”

The East Timor veteran who made the misconduct complaint to Chester in 2020 told MWM that the senior DVA official at the centre of this scandal “should be sacked,” but they would like to meet with Frame because:

“At the very least, I would like an apology for serious breaches of ethics and privacy. And I would like to talk to Alison about how to fix this situation.”

Kolomeitz told MWM after watching the Senate Estimates hearing, “Hopefully, DVA Secretary Alison Frame might be able to meet with this veteran because it looks like a good opportunity to maintain the momentum of reform and help improve how the department is working.”

The Albanese Government’s draft legislation intended to fix the “not fit for purpose” DVA system identified in the Royal Commission’s 2022 interim report is expected to be tabled in Parliament later today by current Veterans Affairs Minister Matt Keogh. Whether the revised legislation will address the remaining systemic problems laid bare in last night’s Senate hearing remains to be seen.

Stuart McCarthy is a medically retired Australian Army officer whose 28-year military career included deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Stuart is an advocate for veterans with brain injury, disabilities, drug trial subjects and abuse survivors. Twitter: @StuartMcCarthy_

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