Former Bendigo South East College principal Ernie Fleming says he’s “baffled” and “bewildered” with the findings of a Victorian Ombudsman report that published details of an investigation into his behaviour at the helm of the school.
Following a lengthy inquiry, Ombudsman Deborah Glass upheld allegations that Mr Fleming misused his role to hire and promote his wife, Karen Fleming, and son, Adam Fleming, at the college.
The investigation also confirmed Mr Fleming “authorised and facilitated” conduct by Michael Bulmer, the school’s bus and charter coordinator, who misused his position to obtain, and attempt to obtain, private benefits for his own businesses, which was co-owned by another of Mr Fleming’s sons, Brandt.
A defiant Mr Fleming, speaking at a media conference on Thursday, said he was not involved in hiring his wife and son, a process which he said was approved by his line mangers in the education department’s regional office.
“If we have roles that we cannot fill, there is no rule that says family members can't be part of schools. I think there are over 10 multiple family groups at that school (BSE) now. Multiple family groups in schools is typical of schools, look at schools, it’s how they operate, they are family businesses,” he said.
“They (Fleming family) were selected by panels which I was not part of.
“I am angry for the college council, the leadership team and the school community, it (the VO report) is just at odds with all the evidence.”
He said the 20 anonymous complaints regarding his conduct received by the education department’s North Western Victoria Region office between August 2014 and February 2016 were part of a “witch hunt” orchestrated by disgruntled staff.
Mr Fleming rejected the VO’s finding that he was involved in appointing son Adam Fleming as manager of the college’s specialist sports program, the Athlete Development Program (ADP), over a more qualified candidate.
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He also challenged the finding that his wife was promoted to the role of Personal Assistant to the Principal despite there being no evidence she submitted a valid application.
When questioned why the college had paid close to $20,000 to a travel company co-owned by Mr Fleming’s son, Brandt, in 2016 for school camps, he said it was a necessary last-gasp solution.
“If we hadn't taken that position the kids wouldn't have gone - in this case the only option left to us at the last minute was to rely on people who could do it,” he said.
“People who should have done the job didn't do the job and we stepped in and fixed the problem at the last minute and luckily we did because it’s about student learning and student opportunity.”
Mr Fleming also suggested there were “aspects of interrogation” during his interview with Victorian Ombudsman investigators in mid-2017.
The ex-principal was supported by Greens candidate for Bendigo West Laurie Whelan, who suggested the VO’s report highlighted deficiencies within the education department.
The VO found the regional office’s inaction in regards to the anonymous complaints, and a perception of its closeness to Mr Fleming, discouraged staff from coming forward with their concerns.
“The department let the school community down in that phase where there should have been more support,” Mr Whelan said.
Mr Fleming, who resigned in May, said the scenario, which included a lengthy investigation and a number of departmental audits, was regrettable.
“Of course I regret it, the damage done to a whole range of things. From a personal point of view all the young people that I stood up for, that I taught about character and integrity - all of that has been questioned, I find that incredibly disappointing,” he said.
He also did not rule out taking legal action against the education department.
“If it takes legal action to say this process was unfair, and that's the department process as much as this process, I'm not somebody who wants vengeance, but I want this made right,” he said.
A spokesperson from the Victorian Ombudsman’s office said there is considerable scrutiny of the Ombudsman investigation process.
“All formal interviews are recorded and subjects are entitled to legal representation [and as noted in the report, subjects were all legally represented],” she said.
Copies of all compulsory interviews are provided to the Victorian Inspector, an independent body which oversees the Ombudsman’s administration of procedural fairness.
The spokesperson said anyone affected is able to complain to the Victorian Inspector.
The Department of Education and Training has been contacted for comment.