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Martin van der Reit: The wrong man

Wed 5 May 2004 In: Community

The man at the centre of the Auckland Pride Centre fraud allegations not only says he didn't do it, but that he is part of an elaborate plot to cover up mismanagement. These are unsettling times for Martin van der Reit, former coordinator for the Auckland Pride Centre. After a year of working for the embattled community centre, van der Reit saw his relationship with his employers slide down the slippery slope over various issues, but he hardly expected to wake up one morning and find himself the star of his very own Hitchcockian "wrong man" saga, being blamed for missing funds to the tune of $30,000. "I saw the reports in the gay media which had me dumbstruck," he says. "It was a shock, I couldn't believe my bloody eyes. I read through it several times, trying to figure out where the hell they came up with this." For van der Reit, who moved to New Zealand from South Africa last year, working at the Auckland Pride Centre was a chance to combine community work with a day job. His job as centre coordinator involved money raising, applying for funding, as well as organising the centre and its volunteers. He had never been a community centre operator before, but was "extensively" involved in the gay community in Cape Town, and upon emigrating to Auckland, thought there was something missing here. "When my partner and I arrived in New Zealand I was shocked at how low-key the community was, in terms of tourists arriving," he remembers. "When we walked into the venues over here it was a bit shocking. So we're sitting around, with my partner, [and I thought] we need to get involved with the community and uplift it a bit and give it a bit more of an international standard as to what we were used to." As luck would have it, he saw an advertisement for the Pride Centre job not long after that. After taking up the position, van der Reit saw that his work would be cut out for him – quite frankly, he felt the place was a bit of a dead duck. "I knew that from the beginning. I was told that it was my responsibility to uplift the place and get it back into the community, so I knew what I was up for. I didn't know quite how hard it was going to be... you spoke to various people in the community and they'd never heard of the Pride Centre. I've spoken to people who have lived in the Auckland CBD all their lives and they never knew it existed. That's a bit funny for a key organisation,” he says. “Then there's the people who knew about the organisation but did not have good things to say about it." The job was a full-time one. Van der Reit says he was working more than 40 hours a week initially, under the watchful eye of one of the board members, although the work environment was not stressful – getting significant numbers of people to support the centre, however, was. Services like Gayline and Rainbow Youth were doing a better job, especially on the visibility front. "The Pride Centre was very dormant and I had to try and change this around, get us active, get us involved and help us fulfill the objectives which we got funding for, which was a difficult job. You're walking into brick walls. Either people don't know you, they don't need the centre, or they don't like the centre. Those are the three categories people would fit into. I also started realising that the crowd that uses the Centre was the same little crowd day in and day out, they basically knew what they wanted, knew what they used the centre for, and they were quite settled in their ways." The first signs of trouble came in July last year when the Centre had a funding application rejected for the first time. Community grants and donations had literally been the Centre's lifeblood for its eighteen years of operation. The same application for funding was rejected again in September. Questions started to be asked. "We didn't quite realise why the funding hadn't come through, so we started enquiring... we got another outside person in who had served on various community boards, he said he couldn't speak on behalf of those organisations but it seems that they were uneasy with what was happening at the Pride Centre." Van der Reit remembers that he was getting uneasy with it too. Looking at the applications for funding that had been put together, they didn't seem to add up with what he was observing on a daily basis at the centre. That, he says, was when he started to make waves with the board. "I started saying, what's happening here, we say we get over 5,000 enquiries a year when its actually more like 1, 2 or 3 a week and those are tourists. The only enquiry of people in need we get is people asking for Gayline's number. I went further... I realised that of the so-called 13 groups that were listed as using the Centre, which is one of the main reasons we got funding, about 6 that did, the rest went to places like Kamo, or had disbanded." He confronted the board also over those six groups, which he says had no real reason to be using a community facility free of charge as they were not non-profit organisations. "I actually came forward and said to the board that I don't think there's a place for the centre anymore. I think the difficulty we're having with the funding organisations is that they are realising this." Van der Reit believes the fraud allegations made against him and his outspoken opinions on the worth of the Pride Centre are connected. "I think that's what started getting them up in arms. Very clever of them to come out with an accusation that is so intense and so serious and so destroying... God knows where they got that from... I'm sure the funding organisations can support whoever they want, but there's a big question mark there whether its worth spending $70-$100,000 a year on 50 or 60 people." Despite the tensions, he carried on with his work. He took over publication of the Pride Centre's Gay Guide, contracting its production out to a separate company that he formed with the editors of Up newspaper. It became van der Reit's second community project, borne out of his feeling that there wasn't any decent information available for gay visitors to New Zealand. The first and only edition printed did not make a profit. In February, van der Reit again apparently put his money where his mouth was, and organised a fashion show in support of the Pride Centre for this year's Hero Festival. It was sadly unsuccessful also, despite eager promotional efforts. "It had a very disappointing turnout. I paid for the function, by the way, out of my pocket. And carried the losses. I got Mika to present the show, to try and raise some interest, and the interest just wasn't there. That raised major concerns. It was advertised in the gay media. We sent emails to all the people in our email database and so forth. About four or five people turned up that I'd never seen before, the rest were just people from the centre." However, the embarrassment and disappointment over the low turnout on the night quickly disappeared as the evening morphed into an episode of Dynasty. "The chairperson that night displayed a bit of aggression towards me, slapped me, slapped my boyfriend and stormed out, for no apparent reason," he alleges. "And that's when I started getting up in arms, saying ‘what's going on here?'" The Centre's lack of funds had them in severe financial difficulty by this point. A grant from the ASB Community Trust in January covered a few expenses, but not salaries. A donation by MP Chris Carter covered rent on the Karangahape Road premises for a month. By March, van der Reit says, he found his wages cheque was made of rubber. "I went straight into overdraft and I haven't had any salary [from them] since then. I got a letter from them saying that they could no longer afford to pay me, and at that point I had to move on." Shortly after that the Centre's February board meeting was held, "and on the Sunday I got a phone call from one of the board members asking if I could urgently phone him back, which I did on the Monday. I spoke to Kerry Mountstephen, she said she wanted to discuss the future of the Centre with me and could I come and see her. Well, I said, it's difficult, I don't have money for petrol. Email me your questions and I'll answer them. So I emailed with my address, and obviously the Friday before the meeting I had prepared a co-ordinator's report, none of which they replied to." Then the allegations surfaced. Merely days after media reports of the Pride Centre having to close its doors due to lack of funds, the story got spicier. GayNZ.com broke the story that around $30,000 was reportedly missing from the Centre's coffers, and the trustees called in the police fraud squad to investigate. Van der Reit, although not initially named in the news reports, was accused of fraudulently accessing money "mostly over the Christmas period", according to Kerry Mountstephen. Van der Reit emphatically denies the accusations. Not only does he deny the accusations, he says it would have been impossible for him to do it, as the level of autonomy within his job did not even provide unsupervised access to the Centre's finances. "Firstly, the bank had to have two signatures on everything. Secondly, I had to report everything to the board. Whenever there were any expenses they had to be approved, the chair had to sign the cheques... I could answer calls, I could direct people, I could make sure the database was updated [but] whenever functions or media statements were planned or approved they had to be run past him and obviously past the board." The board buried its head in the sand over the Centre's financial difficulties, according to van der Reit. "When all the financial problems came to light, the board wanted to know why I didn't tell them about it – but I did. At every board meeting! Then the chairperson said that I didn't stress it enough to the board. [But] I would say how much money was left in the bank, how much more do I need to stress it?" Bad things traditionally come in threes, and so van der Reit was even more disappointed – "pissed off", in fact – to find himself under attack from the publishers of Up newspaper, who said he had left them financially "screwed" as well. The company and business relationship which van der Reit formed with Up editors Andy Boreham and Aaron Hailwood, AMA Media, had lasted only months after being announced in a flurry of pearl-clutching publicity. Up was having financial difficulties, explains van der Reit, but not because of fraudulent activity. He says that advertisers were pulling out after not getting what they either expected or wanted from the paper, and that there were "politics" surrounding the publication. "There were requests from advertisers, and the editors felt... well, they were the editors and the advertisers should respect that. At that point in time I thought, ‘I'm giving myself headaches, I need to move on in life, I need to build my financial stability, I can't fart around trying to persuade them to listen to the advertisers and build up a business.'" "It came to printing in January, and I said [to them] we have to either not print this edition or put some money into the company, because we don't have advertisers to cover the bills for this edition, and we don't have any money to cover previous bills. I said that I cannot give my consent as a director to go ahead and go to print and incur more debt without us having enough income from this publication to cover costs. "They said they would go ahead and publish the paper through their old company, and I said ‘I'm not going to be in your way, I'm not cross, just carry on.'" Wellington-based Hailwood and Boreham's media statement about being left in the lurch by van der Reit appears to have been prompted by documents they found when clearing out the AMA Media offices in Auckland that suggested van der Reit was going to "backstab them and start up a different publication”. Van der Reit contacted Hailwood and Boreham after their media statement, and says he sorted it all out. “I think we've settled the tension... they said they'd heard all the ructions going on at the Pride Centre... I also pointed out that they have all the bank statements, so they can see all the money that's gone in and out... they asked me about one withdrawal, then said they'd give me the benefit of the doubt about the Pride Centre thing. That was the last correspondence... I sold my shares in the company to them... signed the papers to give them full access to the bank account and sent that off to them." So after three dips into the gay community, all of which have ended in unmitigated disaster, Martin van der Reit is pulling back from it all. Does he feel disillusioned or relieved? "I think it's the best thing that could have happened. To step out of it. I feel that one gets so involved with the community that you don't see what's happening with your life. You don't get an outside life. It's gay, gay, gay... left, right and centre. There's no actual normal life to carry on with. Because of that aspect I'm quite pleased that I'm rid of the paper and out of the Pride Centre. That's pleased me." But there are ongoing personal consequences too, he says. "What upset me is obviously the bad publicity that was apparently created by the Pride Centre. I'm hurt, and I'm furious. I was friends with one of the MPs who is now walking wide circles around me, I've tried to show my face at a public venue once and everyone just looked at me..." Still trying to retain some semblance of anonymity he declined to be photographed by GayNZ.com for this article. "Actually, I just want to get it over and done with to be quite honest. Get the truth out and get the media to just bugger off." Van der Reit says he never profited out of the Pride Centre over and above the salary he drew from them. He says he is still owed 10 weeks worth of salary and may take legal action to get paid. Meanwhile, all parties involved are awaiting the results of an auditor's report and the police fraud squad investigation into the Pride Centre fiasco. "The board of directors knew what they were getting into when they employed someone," he says. "The fact that they ran out of money isn't actually my problem, I did my job to the best that I could in applying for the funding... and I have a life too. I have to pay expenses too. It's survival mode."     GayNZ.com - 5th May 2004

Credit: GayNZ.com

First published: Wednesday, 5th May 2004 - 12:00pm

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