The former head of public affairs at embattled .au domain administrator auDA has come clean about taking his family to Disneyland on the organisation’s dollar, hours before details of the trip were exposed by Fairfax Media.
Last night The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age published a story based on “obtained copies of draft and final forensic reviews prepared by advisory group PPB” into misuse of expense accounts and lavish spending within the members organisation under its previous management.
Members had known about the PPB report for some time, but despite calls for its publication to be expedited, its findings remained unreleased.
Hours before journalist Adele Ferguson published the story yesterday evening, Paul Szyndler took to an online forum to “get to the bottom of this before rumours spread and relationships are fractured”.
Writing on dntrade.com.au, Szyndler details his conversations with Ferguson that day.
“The most serious accusation Ms Ferguson mentioned was that I took my family to Disneyland on the auDA dollar. Guess what? I did,” he wrote.
Szyndler says that auDA had a “very clear and well understood” policy at the time whereby staff, after getting a quote for business class travel and accommodation could spend up to the same amount on personal arrangements.
According to the Fairfax story, the PPB report references Szyndler, alleging he “had personal AMEX charges of $1043 to Disneyland, $898 for accommodation at Californian amusement park Knott’s Berry Farm Hotel and $8012 for flights for himself and his family”. The trip was arranged to coincide with the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) 51 summit in Los Angeles in 2014.
“As long as we arrived at meetings in a fit and ready state to represent the interests of .au in various fora, we could do what we wished with the arrangements…My family joined me on a number of international trips. None cost any more than it would have cost to send me alone,” Szyndler wrote in his pre-emptive post.
Other spending reported by Fairfax by former auDA staff includes a $11,500 for a stay in Bali with a family member, $3040 at New York restaurant Wolfgang’s Steakhouse and $3834 over three occasions at Melbourne fine dining restaurant The Point, Albert Park in 2014.
Last week the auDA board wrote to members to say it had contacted Victoria Police regarding "a number of practices of several former auDA directors". Ferguson writes that the PPB report is understood to be among material provided to police.
In an email message sent to the organisation's members and stakeholders, independent chair Chris Leptos said he was briefed on the undisclosed 'practices' during his first week in the role back in November.
"Your Board concluded that those practices warranted referral to the Victoria Police," Leptos, also an independent non-executive director of the PPB Advisory board, wrote. "As you would appreciate, it is not appropriate at this stage to provide further details regarding this matter."
It is unclear who within auDA or PPB Advisory leaked the report.
“I cast no aspersions as to who leaked this information, but it is certainly a serious leak. It is also an ad hominem attack where someone is ‘playing the man and not the ball’,” Szyndler wrote.
The PPB report’s leak comes amid a tumultuous time for auDA.
Earlier this month a group of three disgruntled members – Szyndler among them – called for a mutiny, petitioning members to vote for a special general meeting for the opportunity to oust four members of auDA's leadership.
Szyndler along with Josh Rowe, an auDA director from 2001 to 2015, and Jim Stewart appealed to members to carry a vote of no confidence in auDA CEO Cameron Boardman, and for the removal of three directors: Sandra Hook, Suzanne Ewart, and Chris Leptos.
The rebel group says it has a number of grievances with the way the organisation is run, covering governance, transparency and the handling of a major proposed shake-up which would allow direct registration of .au domains (without the need of .com before it).
One of their complaints – published on petition website grumpier.com.au earlier this month – relates to a "whispering campaign" at the organisation, which the trio says aims to "discredit some past staff and management".
"There are certainly lots of rumours floating around about PPB forensic reports and possible financial irregularities," Rowe, Szyndler and Stewart wrote. "If these have any substance, these should be disclosed to members and the parties concerned. If this doesn’t happen soon, that is totally unfair, as it creates undue stress and reputational damage. What other organisation would carry on like this?" the trio wrote.
Reacting to the Fairfax story on his blog, Rowe said: “The unfair targeting of Paul Szyndler is abhorrent. This behaviour is something that you’d expect from a political party, not those associated with regulating the .au domain name space.”
Fellow rebel Jim Stewart tweeted: "Disgraceful behaviour by auDA. Attempting to smear detractors in Fairfax papers today."
The in-fighting could prove academic. There are fears within auDA’s ranks that the organisation could be dismantled altogether.
The Department of Communications and the Arts is soon to publish its review of the management of the .au domain “to ensure its fit for purpose in Australia’s modern digital landscape”.
“The framework that governs the .au domain was last reviewed 16 years ago and since that time the digital landscape has changed significantly. The review will examine whether Australia’s top-level domain, .au, is being managed consistent with Government and community expectations,” the review’s terms of reference state.
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