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The long road to proving innocence
Source: Stateline Tasmania
Published: Friday, September 3, 2010 9:09 AEST
Expires: Thursday, December 2, 2010 9:09 AEST

The former head of Tasmania’s Sexual Assault Support Service says workplace bullying led to criminal charges against her.

AIRLIE WARD, PRESENTER: When Karen Donnet Jones was charged with using her work credit card for a packet of pain killers and a bandage, she thought commonsense would prevail and the charges would be dropped but instead she had to fight it in court.

Eventually five stealing charges were dismissed.

In her time as the chief executive of the southern Tasmanian Sexual Assault Support Service, Ms Donnet Jones was hailed for vastly improving the help available to victims of sexual assault.

She’s now focussed on clearing her name and has told Stateline she was the victim of workplace bullying which she believes ultimately led to the charges being laid against her.

As Lucy Shannon reports, Tasmania Police has decided to review their files on the case.

KAREN DONNET JONES: When you have criminal charges against you and you’re a person of honesty and integrity, that’s very distressing. And so I guess sleeplessness and feeling depressed and watching my kids suffer.

LUCY SHANNON, REPORTER: Karen Donnet Jones says she’s slowly starting to get her life back on track.

KAREN DONNET JONES: How are you going?

LUCY SHANNON: Her ordeal started seven years ago when she got the job as chief executive of the non government organisation the Sexual Assault Support Service, or SASS.

She was thrilled.

KAREN DONNET JONES: I am very, very committed to the issue of sexual assault. I think it’s a hard subject for people, most people want to avoid it but it’s incredibly common in our community.

LUCY SHANNON: Within three years of being at the helm of SASS, she won a doubling in funding from the State Government.

That saw staff numbers more than double and the number of people getting help grow from 250 a year to 1,000.

She also brought about a major shift in SASS policy, opening the doors to men for the first time.

KAREN DONNET JONES: Any boy in Hobart that was over the age of 12 couldn’t actually access any specialised services in sexual assault and I found that absolutely gob smacking.

LUCY SHANNON: The decision to allow men was not supported by all in the organisation, particularly its board.

And at first Ms Donnet Jones agreed to see all the male clients herself.

She was ruffling feathers internally but in the sector she was a hero.

STEVE FISHER, BEYOND ABUSE: Karen was an absolute rock and a fountain of knowledge and to lose somebody of her experience and passion is just so sad and it is so unjust.

LUCY SHANNON: During the State election campaign of 2006, the Lennon government thought it might be in electoral trouble.

Karen Donnet Jones was putting a lot of pressure on for extra funding.

Highlighting the millions of dollars allocated to the Elwick racecourse, compared with very little for sexual assault victims.

In the end, Labor bowed to the pressure and promised to double funding to almost a million dollars.

At the time, SASS board member Kerry DeGrassi was a Labor candidate.

KAREN DONNET JONES: The conflict of interest issue is really at the heart of it.

She should have stood down. She shouldn’t have been chair person throughout that time.

LUCY SHANNON: Ms DeGrassi put out a Labor Party press release celebrating the funding.

KAREN DONNET JONES: Which was a bit hard to swallow given the board and I for the fact that we’d difficulties with her even getting her to support us in that week.

LUCY SHANNON: Kerry DeGrassi agreed to stand down as chair three months later but she remained on the board.

Almost a year after the funding boost, Ms Donnet Jones went to a work conference in New Zealand and broke her leg.

It resulted in a number of months leave and a successful workers compensation claim.

When she returned to SASS in early 2008, she was shocked to discover that the board had promised to return some of the hard fought for funding to the State Government.

She had been fending off such requests for a while.

KAREN DONNET JONES: I had calls from the various bureaucrats asking for the money back, or some of the money back, which I found quite disturbing.

And would flatly refuse because every cent really was going, had been budgeted for.

LUCY SHANNON: In a statement the Deputy Secretary of Human Services Alison Jacobs says about $90,000 was requested and returned.

She describes them as unexpended funds.

Ms Donnet Jones says she was then asked to accept a board member as her executive assistant, she didn’t think they were qualified for the job.

KAREN DONNET JONES: So I think at that moment when I asked him to withdraw his application the risk of then having some retaliation was ever present and after that the relationship, my relationship with the board started to deteriorate after that.

LUCY SHANNON: She says she was bully and harassed.

She was slowly getting off crutches and suffering stress.

She started to think about quitting her beloved organisation.

KAREN DONNET JONES: That’s when I decided well, I just need to say what’s really going on here because, you know, otherwise you just walk away and no one knows what really happened.

LUCY SHANNON: So at the SASS AGM that year she not only outlined the achievements of her organisation but also her concerns about the operation of the board.

KAREN DONNET JONES: I didn’t just get up at the AGM and try to throw a bucket of cold water over the board.

I had been suffering a fair degree of bullying for that six months prior to that.

Bullying like I never experienced in my life.

LUCY SHANNON: She says as a result of airing her concerns she felt she was being pursued.

KAREN DONNET JONES: I had staff coming to me and telling me that whenever you left the building the board were coming in, they were trying to find something on you, they were asking about whether you’d ever touched their MYOB system, had you ever touched the computer with the finances.

LUCY SHANNON: Not long after she made her complaints at the AGM she was told by the board there were four bullying allegations against her from staff members.

Dino Ottavi, who’s a specialist in cases of workplace harassment and bullying was her advocate.

DINO OTTAVI, ADVOCATE: There was a plan and the plan was to ensure that in every way Karen was not to survive this.

LUCY SHANNON: Despite years of dealing with workplace disputes, he was shocked.

KAREN DONNET JONES: For me, Karen’s case is the worst case I’ve dealt with and I’ve seen.

LUCY SHANNON: Former Family Court judge Michael Hannon had just become a board member of SASS at the time.

It was agreed he would inquire into both sets of bullying allegations, but he resigned in disgust after a decision was made without his knowledge that board members Kerry DeGrassi and Annie Humphries would conduct the inquiry instead.

In a letter tendering his resignation he’s said to have members of the board against whom allegations had been made by the CEO interview staff members who’ve made allegations against the CEO is contrary to natural justice and could be subject to legal challenge.

He also said to have the brother of Ms DeGrassi, Michael Whittle, give advice to the board on procedure was not only a conflict of interest but contrary to natural justice.

He finished by saying he could not be part of an organisation that didn’t act in accordance with natural justice in relation to its senior employee.

The outcome of the investigation was a finding of gross misconduct and Karen Donnet Jones was sacked.

Ms Donnet Jones says her claims of bullying were never investigated.

She made an unfair dismissal claim in the Industrial Commission and four months later reluctantly accepted a settlement to help her family move on.

About three weeks later the police knocked on her door.

Instigated by the board of SASS, police charged the 47 year old with five counts of stealing.

KAREN DONNET JONES: I couldn’t believe it.

I said what were the personal items?

He said, “They’re claiming that Nurofen, a packet of Nurofen is one of the charges, worth about $5, and the other charge was a packet of Elastoplast,” which I used to tape by knee cap into place because when I had injured my leg my knee cap no longer sat in the right spot.

LUCY SHANNON: Last month magistrate Chris Webster dismissed the charges, saying there was no evidence to suggest dishonesty.

Roland Browne was Karen Donnet Jones’s lawyer.

He was frustrated with the tenor of the police investigation.

For example, one charge related to the use of the SASS credit card for a parking ticket issued in work time.

The NGO’s policy was that such tickets could be paid by the organisation.

ROLAND BROWNE, LAWYER: The investigating officer had no knowledge of that document at all.

He had never seen it.

KAREN DONNET JONES: He even said to me, he said, ‘I am not really sure about this case.’

He said he had gone to a senior police officer and he had been told that he had to continue with the case.

LUCY SHANNON: This morning, Tasmania Police told Stateline it was reviewing the case files as a result of the concerns.

After being charged, Karen Donnet Jones approached all sides of politics for assistance.

She says she was told she would have to wait about nine months for a meeting with the then Human Services Minister Lin Thorp.

Ms Thorp denies this.

KAREN DONNET JONES: She’s a long term friend of Kerry DeGrassi, I know, that they’ve been friends for 30 years both in the Labor Party obviously, but even still as a Minister you expect some level of impartiality.

LUCY SHANNON: Ms Thorp refutes the allegation she acted impartially.

The shadow minister at the time, Brett Whiteley, has told Stateline he was so concerned that he contacted the auditor general, Mike Blake.

Mr Whiteley says he was worried money meant for sexual assault victims was being wasted on a potential witch hunt.

Last year, the Department of Human Services conducted an independent audit review of SASS.

The report concluded that SASS had good governance arrangements.

The Government also says it’s received assurances from SASS that funding for service delivery wasn’t used for legal expenses.

Stateline asked Cabinet secretary Cassy O’Connor if she was satisfied with those assurance and in a statement yesterday she said she would now meet with the board to substantiate them.

Ms O’Connor also described Karen Donnet Jones as a person of great integrity and sincerity.

Abuse campaigner Steve Fisher has joined Ms Donnet Jones’s calls for an inquiry into the saga.

STEVE FISHER: I believe myself that this well may be politically motivated and, as I said, we need to find out why such a ridiculous case was brought against a woman who was doing such a fantastic job.

LUCY SHANNON: He says the one suffering the most as a result are victims of sexual assault.

STEVE FISHER: The services that are provided are not anywhere near like they were when Karen was CEO.

AIRLIE WARD: Yesterday the ABC received a letter from lawyers representing SASS, saying Kerry DeGrassi was unwell and unable to be interviewed.

The letter said that there’s no basis for any allegations of improper conduct by her or impropriety by the Sexual Assault Support Service.

The lawyers says it was SASS’s belief that Karen Donnet Jones motivation in takes part in the Stateline program was to attempt to harm Ms DeGrassi and the service.

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Elsewhere:

Not too much confidence in police internal investigations ...

ABC Online: Thorp under fire over Donnet-Jones case

Updated 10 hours 33 minutes ago

A Tasmanian Government Minister is facing criticism for her involvement in the failed criminal case against the former head of the southern-based Sexual Assault Support Service.

The former head of the service, Karen Donnet-Jones, had stealing charges against her dismissed in August.

Police will now pay her legal costs.

Ms Donnet-Jones claims the Police Minister Lin Thorp - who was then the Minister for Human Services - is partly to blame for the matter going as far as it did.

Ms Donnet-Jones believes Ms Thorp avoided meeting her about the issue and believes the MP’s friendship with a SASS board member clouded her judgement.

“I was very disappointed with Lin Thorp in that she didn’t take an impartial view to this,” Ms Donnet-Jones said.

“I wrote to her and said I had serious concerns about the board and there needed to be an investigation. I was then told middle of 2010 before she’d see me.”

Ms Thorp denies the accusation.

“We were undertaking an independent investigation of the service,” she said.

“I responsed in writing and said it would be inappropriate to meet with her and that was the sum of it.”

She says the Department undertook reviews at SASS and she has no regrets about how she handled the matter.

“Absolutely not, I’m just very sorry Ms Dorret-Jones has gone through what’s clearly been an unpleasant ordeal,” she said.

Ms Donnet-Jones says her reputation and work prospects have already been damaged by the criminal case against her, and she has lodged a victimisation claim in the Anti-Discrimination Commission.

She also wants an independent inquiry; the Minister says she sees no point in having one.

The Tasmanian Premier believes an injustice may have been done, though he maintains Tasmania has a robust legal system.

Full story HERE

First published: 2010-11-03 07:26 AM