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The inside story of the Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund collapse and the missing millions

The Dream Catcher motor yacht was worth millions of dollars when it was last sold. (ABC News: Amy Bainbridge)

In the fading autumn light, the 32-metre yacht is hard to miss. 

From any vantage point across the Gulf Harbour Marina, just north of Auckland, the Dream Catcher is easily the largest vessel at the end of its pier.

"When it first turned up I thought, 'Wow that's too big for here,'" said a fisherman who has been operating in the area for 29 years.

The Dream Catcher is registered to a private company in the Cook Islands and was advertised for $US3.95 million ($5.55 million) in 2018.

Along with a waterfront residence recently listed for more than $NZ2 million ($1.82 million), the Dream Catcher is owned by co-founder of the Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund (ACBF), UK-born businessman Ron Pattenden.

Ron Pattenden's yacht Dream Catcher is moored at the end of the pier because of its size. (ABC News: Amy Bainbridge)

At 74, after a long career in insurance, hospitality and tourism, he told the ABC he'd been hoping for a quiet life.

Instead, serious questions have been raised about his decades with ACBF and the treatment of its Indigenous customers.

Thousands of Indigenous Australians have been left reeling by the collapse of the company — also known as Youpla — in March this year.

Many had paid thousands of dollars to ACBF over decades, after signing up to funeral insurance policies under the mistaken belief that it was a funeral savings fund owned and run by Aboriginal people.

Ron Pattenden, whose business interests also included tourism and hospitality, was a director of the ACBF companies. (ABC: 7.30)

Upon learning of the yacht and the waterfront property, former customer and Gomeroi man Donald "Uncle Duck" Craigie said he could "only dream" of such a lifestyle.

"We dare not contemplate living a life of luxury such as Ron Pattenden," he said.

"He should come back here to answer questions about the demise of the ACBF and Youpla funeral funds."

The Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) has confirmed it is investigating past and present directors for breaches of both the corporations act and the ASIC act.

Mr Pattenden is understood to be one of the main people of interest.

"All of those people who were directors of ACBF need to step up and please explain themselves," Mr Craigie said.

Donald Craigie and Cheryl Fernando say "virtually everyone" in their community in Moree signed onto ACBF in the early days. (ABC News: Amy Bainbridge)

While he declined a formal interview, Mr Pattenden told the ABC he was not to blame for the company's collapse.

Mr Pattenden, who splits his time between Vanuatu and New Zealand, sold ACBF in 2018, after new chief executive Bryn Jones was slammed for the company's exploitative treatment of Indigenous customers by the royal commission into banking.

But while Mr Pattenden sold the business and stood down as director, he remained linked to the company until 2020.

Money 'fed back' into community

The ACBF's history goes back to the early 1990s, when an article in national Indigenous newspaper, the Koori Mail, labelled it an "innovative solution".

An article published in the Koori Mail in 1992 told potential customers of ACBF's lofty aims.  (Supplied: Koori Mail)

Indigenous Australians could chip in a few dollars a fortnight, and when they died their families would quickly be paid out thousands of dollars to cover their funeral.

The article explained two Aboriginal health workers in Armidale came up with the idea — Dudley Duncan and Richard Widders.

ACBF ran advertisements in the Koori Mail looking for Indigenous Australians to promote the fund in New South Wales, offering "good commission". (Supplied: Koori Mail)

There was no mention of co-founder Ron Pattenden even though he was a director and company secretary and held 40 per cent of the shares.

The company was recruiting plenty of customers, and Richard Widders told the Koori Mail the "nature and affordability" of the funeral fund meant parents could insure kids younger than 10 for $2 a week.

"The ACBF fully expects to have over 2,000 members by Christmas and in this regard any surplus funds available will be directly fed back to communities to assist in health areas," Mr Widders told the paper.

But the New South Wales government briefly shut the fund down with an injunction order in December 1992 while the court considered whether the fund was registered properly.

Then-NSW consumer affairs minister Kerry Chikarovski said the funds were not secure, and it appeared "the company has been telling members that profits from the scheme would be used for Aboriginal welfare, although detailed arrangements have not been spelled out".

'It was confusing for everyone'

A second fund was launched in 1993: The Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund 2 (ACBF 2).

Court documents show Fund 1 was back in operation by December 1993.

In just three years, 9,000 First Nations people were signed up for funeral insurance across the two funds.

Mr Craigie remembers the day a tall man with a British accent knocked on his door.

"This non-Aboriginal person walked up the driveway, introduced himself as Ron Pattenden and said he worked for the Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund that was wholly owned and operated by Aboriginal people," he said.

Donald "Uncle Duck" Craigie joined ACBF in the 1990s, when it was first beginning. (ABC News: Amy Bainbridge)

"He was a good talker. He was very persuasive."

Mr Craigie and his partner, Gomeroi woman Cheryl Fernando, were living in Moree at the time, and said the cost of funerals had become a huge burden in the community.

"We were sort of thinking, 'Oh this is good, this is a great idea,' because every time there's a death in the family or community, we were going around doorknocking, doing raffles, making 100 clubs," he said.

"People were donating every little dollar of help towards these funerals because the families were suffering out there."

But while the companies' names and brochures gave Mr Craigie the impression they were Aboriginal owned and operated, that was not the case.

Ron Pattenden was a director and owned 90 per cent of Fund 2.

Ms Fernando said she believed it was wholly owned by Aboriginal people.

"When they said it was ACBF — Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund … when anyone says it's Aboriginal, naturally we think it's black, so we all jumped for it," Ms Fernando said.

Cheryl Fernando's ACBF certificates as she paid more money into the fund over the years. The middle certificate is signed by Ron Pattenden. (ABC News: Amy Bainbridge)

By 1997, the Aboriginal health workers, Mr Widders and Mr Dudley, were no longer directors of ACBF 1, and were never made directors or shareholders of ACBF 2.

In 1999, ASIC raised the alarm about ACBF salespeople visiting Indigenous communities without the appropriate permission, and using the Aboriginal flag to give false representations about the nature of the business.

The regulator launched legal action, alleging ACBF had been "unconscionable, misleading and deceptive" to Indigenous customers.

The case settled out of court, and the company was ordered to change its marketing material, offer refunds in certain communities and establish a compliance program — but it was not required to change its name or logo.

"They were still marketing themselves as [Aboriginal], they were going to community events, they would have community members marketing the material sometimes as well," Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service lawyer Siobhan Doyle said.

"I think it was confusing for everyone."

'I trusted it'

Barkindji woman Kathy Herold was one of those doorknocked by an ACBF salesperson.

The single mother of six had struggled to find a steady job, when she was approached in 2002.

"The word around the street was they had an Aboriginal funeral fund and I thought, 'great'," Ms Herold said.

Ms Herold wanted to make sure her kids were not left with a financial burden if she were to pass away.

Ms Herold told the salesman she could not read well, but he said he could help her fill out the forms.

Kathy Herold complained to AFCA about ACBF and won. But she never saw her payout. (ABC News: Amy Bainbridge)

"The bloke told me that I'd have to deduct money out of my bank account, so I gave them all that detail," Ms Herold said.

She signed up five of her children, and the following year signed up her daughter.

"No, they didn't tell me about it being an insurance fund, they just told me it was a funeral fund," Ms Herold said.

She later realised it was not Aboriginal owned or run, after hearing rumours in the local community.

With the help of Siobhan Doyle at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, she lodged a complaint with the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA) in 2020.

AFCA ordered ACBF to pay Ms Herold a refund of her premiums last September, amounting to $15,768.

Ms Herold is among 178 people to have won AFCA cases against ACBF. Of those claims, 61 are yet to be paid out by the company, amounting to $500,000.

"I'm gutted."

ACBF takes the stand

In all, ACBF has faced three challenges from ASIC — first in 1999 for misleading and deceptive conduct, again in 2003 for breaking federal anti-hawking laws and finally in 2020 for its behaviour from 2015 through November 2018.

After the 2003 challenge, the two existing funds were prohibited from accepting new members.

An advertisement in the Koori Mail with a disclaimer, written in white over an image, that the ACBF was not an Aboriginal company. (Supplied: Koori Mail)

But under state law, NSW Fair Trading allowed ACBF to launch a third product — known as Fund 3, or the Aboriginal Community Funeral Plan — as well as a fourth product — a non-Indigenous Community Funeral Plans.

In 2017, ACBF was banned from deducting premiums directly from customers' welfare payments, which it had done with millions of dollars since 2001.

Ten months later, Bryn Jones was appointed as a new director and CEO, alongside existing directors Ron Pattenden and Jonathan Law, Mr Pattenden's Vanuatu-based accountant.

Mr Jones is the son of Mr Pattenden's bank manager and had no experience in the insurance industry.

When the banking royal commission called the company to the stand in 2018, Mr Jones took questions.

Bryn Jones at the royal commission.(Supplied)

Mr Jones said he was trying improve ACBF, but the royal commission's interim report in September 2018 found the company had not met community expectations.

The report found the company may have breached a number of laws, including the 1999 ASIC consent orders about its marketing materials, apparently without consequences. 

Two months later, Mr Pattenden sold ACBF, and Mr Jones and Isaac Simon — a Worimi man, who had earlier conducted a cultural audit of its operation — took it over.

Mr Pattenden resigned from the board and sold his shares, but ACBF kept sending money to Crown Insurance Services — Mr Pattenden's Vanuatu-based underwriting business.

Crown Insurance was acting to underwrite, or insure, the group of ACBF companies.

The Australian Tax Office accused Crown Insurance Services of tax evasion over the set-up, but a court found it was all above board in 2011.

The arrangement had been in place since 2002, and meant large portions of member contributions were sent offshore from Funds 2,3 and 4.

But it may have been against the law.

In August 2018, NSW Fair Trading NSW wrote to ACBF to tell it that sending money to Crown Insurance from Fund 3 "could be in breach of Section 22 of the NSW Funeral Funds Act".

Section 22 deals with how and where funeral fund contributions can be invested and saved.

Fund 3 was started shortly after the first two funds were shut down in 2004, which means it was sending money to Vanuatu for more than a decade before NSW Fair Trading raised an issue with it.

NSW Fair Trading said the company continued to send premiums to Vanuatu until 2020, as a "transitional measure" so it could continue to pay out claims, while it made other arrangements.

The ABC began trying to contact Mr Pattenden earlier this year.

Eventually, the ABC tracked Mr Pattenden down near Auckland, at the pier where he moors his multi-million-dollar Dream Catcher.

Ron Pattenden is found in New Zealand.

Ron Pattenden would not agree to talk publicly, but vowed to tell his side of the story in the future.

His other sources of wealth include tourism property investments, some of which he has recently sold in New Zealand and Vanuatu for around $16 million.

The only thing Mr Pattenden said on the record was that Youpla stopped paying contributions to Crown Insurance in February 2020.

He said it stopped paying its premiums without notification.

In 2012, Ron Pattenden described his battle with the ATO as a "heart-wrenching ordeal". (ABC: 7.30)

NSW Fair Trading could not explain why money had been allowed to flow to Crown Insurance in Vanuatu for more than a decade.

It's unclear why regulators allowed Fund 3 to be set up in the aftermath of the 2003 anti-hawking court action.

ASIC documents show it began operating in 2005.

But NSW Fair Trading did not register it under Funeral Funds Act until 2008, after a series of information sessions in Aboriginal communities made it clear “increased transparency and consumer protection” would be necessary for the fund.

Aaron Davis from the Indigenous Consumer Assistance Network (ICAN) has been trying to draw the regulators' attention to ACBF's conduct for decades.

ICAN CEO Aaron Davis has been advocating for customers of ACBF for decades.  (ABC News: Brendan Mounter)

"ACBF was really clever at playing the system," he said.

"On the flip side, the regulators … were prepared to be beaten at certain points, and that's disappointing."

The beginning of the end

Following the banking royal commission, the government introduced new laws that required funeral insurance providers like Youpla to get a financial licence to keep operating.

The company — rebranded as Youpla — applied for a licence twice but was unsuccessful.

In January 2020, Isaac Simon resigned as director and vacated his shares, and was replaced by his brother Jamal Idris.

The new owners faced a predicament — they had four funds to administer, but only one had money attached to it onshore.

Contributions to Fund 1 had been kept in an Australian-based trust fund, while large portions of the contributions to the other funds were sent to Crown Insurance in Vanuatu.

The ABC understands Youpla hoped to consolidate the existing funds, but the planned restructure never got off the ground.

Documents from its last year in operation show Fund 3 spent most of the $2.6 million it was paid by members in 2020/2021.

$848,000 of it went towards paying claims, while the rest went to "administration fees" ($1.5 million) and "operating expenses" ($489,000).

Bryn Jones gave evidence at the royal commission into banking. He later bought shares in the ACBF through his company Elah Valley. (AAP: Glenn Campbell)

The Youpla Group of companies is now directed by two Queenslanders — Gregory Wheeldon and John Allen.

Bryn Jones, Jamal Idris and another former director Leanne Court still hold shares in the company.

'Funds transferred improperly'

In November 2021, Fund 2 went into administration, and by March 2022, all four funds were liquidated.

Donald Craigie estimates he paid $40,000 into the ACBF for him and his children. When he asked the company for a statement of his accounts this year, it only provided them from 2004 onwards. (ABC News: Amy Bainbridge)

Indigenous financial counsellor Bettina Cooper and her colleagues have been overwhelmed by calls.

"From March 1 to March 9, we received 1,000 calls [about ACBF]," she said.

Liquidators SV Partners has reported there is almost $12 million in a trust attached to Fund 1, but little left in the other funds.

Some of the $12 million will need to be used to pay the liquidator's fees and creditors.

Even if it was all dispersed to existing customers, they would only get about $800 each.

SV Partners is investigating allegations of "funds transferred improperly out of the Group".

What happens now?

While liquidators investigate, advocates are calling on the government to step in and include members of Youpla in the compensation scheme of last resort.

Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service lawyer Siobhan Doyle said it all could have been avoided with better legislation and regulation.

"They've known about them misleading and deceiving customers since the 90s, and then most recently in the royal commission their conduct was brought into the spotlight.

"Still not much was done, and now we're here where they've gone broke and thousands of people have lost all the savings they've put in for their funeral."

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service's Siobhan Doyle believes the government should compensate ACBF policy holders. (ABC News: Amy Bainbridge)

The new Labor government has committed to an inquiry into ACBF/Youpla, but no time line has been given.

"I'm hopeful First Nations voices will be heard under this new government," Mob Strong Debt Help's Bettina Cooper said.

"Our focus is on compensation for those impacted." 

Cheryl Fernando hopes that compensation comes quickly.

"We can't afford to die yet," she said.

"We put our trust and faith in this so-called Aboriginal funeral fund, and then they turn around and ripped us. It's not fair."