Jane Cartledge has spent almost a decade trying to claw back hundreds of thousands of dollars from a retirement village operator that she didn’t know had a criminal past and connections to underworld figures.
The battle to get back the $270,000 she is owed from the sale of her mother’s apartment at Berkeley Living in Victoria’s quiet bayside suburb of Patterson Lakes, has cost her time, money and damaged a relationship with her brother.
It is the latest retirement village operator to face disturbing revelations of misconduct, with Fairfax Media uncovering more than 30 families who have had apartments, worth millions of dollars in total, in the retirement village sold to new owners – when they left or their relatives died – without ever receiving any of the sale proceeds.
Cartledge says she is dismayed that the village’s operator has been allowed to sell apartments and not pay residents or their families.
“Cream and bastards rise to the top,” she says.
It follows a joint Fairfax Media and Four Corners investigation into one of the biggest operators, Aveo, which found a litany of questionable business practices including complex and opaque contracts, fee gouging, safety issues and misleading marketing promises.
The investigation put the spotlight on weak regulations that fail to protect residents.
Only this week the Andrews government, in Victoria, faced heavy criticism after releasing its response to a parliamentary inquiry into the sector from various consumer groups and residents as “failing to deliver” and pushing proposed reforms “into the long grass of more reviews” that would mean victims continue to fall through the cracks.
Fairfax Media can reveal that Berkeley Living, a company trading name registered to Berkeley Property Management, is operating as a respite centre under the directorship of a 25-year-old man with little prior business experience and a criminal record.
It is also linked to former aged care magnate-turned-bankrupt Stephen Snowden, who has been described as a “serial scammer” after Westpac chased him in 2013 in the Supreme Court of Victoria for $13 million of money he allegedly misappropriated.
The court found in favour of Westpac and the bank appointed a liquidator to Berkeley Living. In 2014 the bank won a court order to bankrupt him but the bank says it got little back for its efforts.
Snowden took over management of the village in 2009 when the previous operator ran into financial trouble and his business was wound up.
Snowden told Fairfax Media this week that the 30-plus families and investors who bought into the business as strata owners were “scumbags” and denied he owed any residents money.
“As soon as money becomes involved there is no such thing as family especially if mum and dad is not around,” Snowden says.
Snowden says he is not responsible for the financial hardship the former residents are suffering and is instead the person who is trying to rectify the problem.
Snowden hit the headlines in 2013 when the Department of Health investigated him in connection with an aged care business he was allegedly linked to, Cambridge Aged Care, on the basis he had a previous conviction for dishonesty.
Until June 2012, Cambridge was providing welfare services to Berkeley retirement village, including meals and support services.
One of those aged care homes was linked to a business associate of convicted drug lord Tony Mokbel. Snowden denies being aware of the man’s underworld connections.
Fairfax Media can reveal that Berkeley Property Management continues to operate the Berkeley Living retirement village but Snowden is not on the board or registered as owning shares.
Olga Harradine, a former business partner and former girlfriend of Snowden, is the sole shareholder of Berkeley Property Management. A lawyer for Ms Harradine says: “Ms Harradine was not aware she was a shareholder until contacted by The Age and is taking steps to have herself removed as a shareholder.”
The current director of Berkeley Property Management is listed as Deyar Musa, a 25-year-old man who was convicted of cocaine possession in 2016.
When asked how Snowden knew Musa, Snowden says he didn’t know before adding: “What the world has to understand is everything has been done at an arm’s length basis.”
Snowden says residents had agreed to receive only a proportional return. He planned to improve his financial situation by developing land near the village.
Snowden says he’s keen to return to managing the village.
But Colin Walker, one of the 30-plus families trying to get back their money, believes Snowden has never been far away. Walker lives close to the village and says has regularly seen him there. At one stage Snowden listed one of the units as his residential address on company documents.
Walker sold the unit after his father died in 2011. Since then he has been trying to retrieve almost $100,000 that he is owed after exit fees and other fees are deducted.
“I have gone to Consumer Affairs Victoria, which is a paper tiger. I have written to my local member, the media, Westpac, Moorabin CID for fraud and nothing happened.”
He says many residents and families were too old and too afraid to speak up for fear of reprisals. He says the only avenue left was legal action, but that would cost at least $250,000, which some of the families couldn’t afford.
“The whole situation is a complete debacle,” he says.
Walker criticised a regulatory system that allows retirement villages to change operators without proper regulatory scrutiny.
“This is an area were many elderly people are unsure of their rights and they invest in these places which can be run or taken over by shifty operators and nobody cares.”
Cartledge says her family is owed $275,000. She says her mother would be devastated if she knew the money she worked hard for all her life hadn’t gone to her children.
Like Walker and the many other families, she feels let down by a system that has let retirement village industry fall through the cracks.
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