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Former Aboriginal Health boss faces jail over deception charges

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A former public servant and chair of South Australia’s Aboriginal Health Council will be sentenced on Tuesday after being found guilty of 47 counts of deception.

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Yvonne Buza, 62, of Windsor Gardens, was found guilty of dishonestly claiming $77,415.02 in travel allowances from the Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia (AHCSA) during her tenure on the council’s board between March 2010 and August 2014.

She pleaded not guilty to all counts.

The prosecution put forward a further 30 acts – amounting to a total of $187,634.81– however no determination on those counts was made.

Buza, who was found guilty of the 47 counts by Magistrate David McLeod in February, was the subject of an ICAC investigation in 2016 for allegedly claiming dishonest travel allowances from government departments.

The court heard that from November 2009 to March 2015, Buza siphoned money from Country Health SA, as well as SA Health’s Women’s and Children’s Health Network, where she worked as a contracted employee in 2014 and 2015.

The 47 counts of deception of which she was found guilty relate solely to deception against AHCSA, which is state and federal government-funded.

Each count carries a maximum penalty of ten years imprisonment.

During a sentencing hearing last month prosecutors asked McLeod to consider the 30 uncharged acts in his sentencing decision.

“Each of the charged occasions weren’t what I would call opportunistic occasions of offending or as a needs arise type situation, as sporadic offending,” prosecutor Michael Foundas said.

“This was part of an ongoing, persistent and systematic scheme of deception by Ms Buza that’s in effect spanned a four and a half year period unabated during that period of time.”

McLeod found Buza dishonestly maintained the impression that she resided in Roxby Downs and Andamooka while living in metropolitan Adelaide in order to claim travel allowances to which she was not entitled.

During her time on the AHCSA board, Buza made weekly claims ranging from $600 to $3300.

The court heard Buza maintained interest in 15 different bank accounts, with a total of $351,149.90 deposited into the accounts during her offending period.

Of that, Buza spent $53,090 at the Village Tavern at Golden Grove and $14,680 at gaming room Jackpots on Pulteney Street.

Buza is set to appeal McLeod’s decision. She maintains that her residence was outside of metropolitan Adelaide and that inaccuracies in the claim records and use of her identity relied upon by the prosecution to track her whereabouts could be explained by her lending her bank cards and phone to family and friends.

Current AHSCA chair Polly Sumner-Dodd told the court during an Aboriginal sentencing conference last month that Buza had “tainted” and “destroyed” the credibility of the organisation.

“We feel that we are responsible to a very big organisation which has lots of money, which is trusted not just by the funding bodies but we encompass the entire state,” she said.

“All of these Aboriginal community-controlled organisations sit on the health council.

“Their reputations all take a hit from this.”

Sumner-Dodd said Buza’s actions had impacted the mental and physical health of senior AHCSA staff members and had “stained” the Aboriginal community as a whole.

“It’s been a great disappointment in what was discovered with Ms Buza’s actions,” she told the court.

“Within our Aboriginal community $300,000 plus goes a long way and its upsetting, it’s disappointing.

“We deal with so much poverty within the community and I think for amounts of money such as what Ms Buza has been convicted of defrauding… those monies could have been spent within the Aboriginal community providing services to the different Aboriginal health services and organisations, not just in the metropolitan area, in the rural and remote.”

The court also heard from former Commissioner for Aboriginal Engagement Klynton Wanganeen, who said Buza was “highly respected by quite a lot of the Narungga community and by a large section of the wider Aboriginal community”.

He said Buza was an avid volunteer and was passionate about improving the conditions for Aboriginal people across the state.

“It’s always my aim to ensure that Aboriginal people are treated fairly in Australia, South Australia, and in the justice system, and that Aboriginal people are more able to contribute to the community when they are working in the community, than to be sitting idle in a jail cell,” he said.

During the hearing, barrister Tim Campbell, representing Buza, said Buza was declared bankrupt in April and suffered chronic diabetes.

He asked McLeod to consider a suspended sentence due to her standing in the community and her ill health.

“It’s still a very real form of punishment and if you were inclined to suspend it for somebody who’s of this age, of this ill health, of this support for the community… we know that there’s reciprocalities of course in the community.”

Campbell also said Buza was an Aboriginal cultural consultant employed at the Department for Child Protection.

“(She) still cares for children overnight and is respected by the child protection community,” he said.

But a department spokesperson told InDaily Buza was not employed as a cultural consultant, either on a paid or voluntary basis.

InDaily was present at the open court session in June, however we were denied the right to take notes.

In a letter sent to InDaily, Chief Magistrate Judge Mary-Louise Hribal said InDaily was denied the right to take notes as ID was not shown when requested by the court sheriff.

“The presiding Magistrate was informed that the journalist had been asked to produce ID to confirm she was a bono fide member of the media and she was unable to do so,” Hribal wrote.

“Had the journalist produced the necessary ID evidencing that she was a bono fide member of the media, he (sic) would have permitted notes to be taken.”

InDaily maintains that neither McLeod nor the court sheriff asked for ID to verify media accreditation and, if such a demand had been made, InDaily would have produced the necessary documentation.

Buza will be sentenced in the Magistrates Court on Tuesday.

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