Besieged aerial patrol boss Harry Mitchell has defended himself against allegations of financial wrongdoing and vowed to man the service’s fundraiser sausage sizzle at the weekend in a show of business-as-usual.
“I have nothing to hide,” he told the Mercury on Friday from the service’s Albion Park base, amid preparations for the weekend’s Wings Over Illawarra airshow. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ll be here if people want to see me.”
The patrol’s financials, and their handling by general manager Mr Mitchell in particular, have been scrutinised in a forensic accounting report detailing alleged corporate wrongdoing, including misappropriation of funds intended for charity.
The dealings have piqued the interest of the Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad, Lake Illawarra police, the NSW Crime Commission, the Australian Tax Office and the Department of Fair Trading.
But Mr Mitchell told the Mercury there were explanations for many items in the report – including hundreds of dollars in restaurant bills.
“For 24 years we've had a Christmas party for our volunteers,” he said.
“There was a fee paid [by volunteers] toward the dinner, then the Aerial Patrol paid a small subsidy. Hundreds of man hours go into doing the patrols and the volunteers are entitled to some form of thanks.”
Mr Mitchell made headlines in October when a fundraiser event for the patrol, hosted by Fourth Reich Motorcycle Club, was raided by the state’s gangs police.
Mr Mitchell defended the club then, prompting questions about his links with the declared one-percenters.
On Friday Mr Mitchell told the Mercury his ties to the club came down to one man, Phil Critcher, who he described as a club member.
“Probably five or six weeks ago I was in Litani’s on Corrimal Street and apparently Phil Critcher was there,” he said. “We had a cup of coffee there for old time’s sake."
“I know him from his Warilla surf days back in the 1980s – he was a lifesaver.
“I know him well, but if I see him more than once a year I would be surprised.”
Mr Mitchell intends for the patrol to keep $750,000 it received from commercial pilot Bernard Stevermuer between December 2013 and July 2014 as part-payment for the sale of its commercial arms, Aero V and NSW Air.
The sale fell through after Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad swooped on a plane at Albion Park airport and charged the pilot, Mr Stevermuer, for knowingly dealing with proceeds of a drug trafficking syndicate. The Mercury does not suggest Mr Mitchell was involved with the syndicate.
The $750,000 is now being pursued by the NSW Crime Commission under proceeds of crime legislation, but Mr Mitchell says the funds have been used to “pay down debt” and should not be frozen.
“Payments to the aerial patrol were made pursuant to an arms-length commercial transaction entered into by NSW Air, Aero V and [Stevermuer’s company] Always Airborne," he said.
“[Stevermuer] had obligations and he defaulted in those obligations. Those agreements were eventually validly terminated and his money was forfeited.”
Mr Mitchell could not explain allegations that he used aerial patrol funds to make a $5000 lump sum payment on his company car, to drive down the car’s monthly repayments and “deliberately disguise” its true cost from the board.
“I don’t know that the board applied a threshold [on the car’s cost],” he said.
He said his salary had risen from $35,000 to $70,000 over the years and he had effectively worked “24-7” for the patrol.
The salary increase would benefit the patrol as well as him personally, he suggested.
“The [increase to $70,000] was because I told the board that one day I won’t be here, I’ll be gone, and you need to have something in place that will attract an incumbent.”