14 September 2019 Josh Robertson reported that a Brisbane multimillionaire donated $300,000 to the College of Universal Medicine in 2013. Ex Star Casino boss, Neil Gamble, donated $50,000. The money was refunded to them and the other donors after the Australian Tax Office conducted a lengthy investigation and found the ‘College’ is not a school, and its directors had breached their duty to protect public assets. The ATO subsequently revoked the charity’s tax deductible gift recipient endorsement and wound up its gift fund.
But you’d never know any of that if you believed any of Universal Medicine’s bent publicity. SEE UPDATE AT BOTTOM OF THIS POST
Late 2015, around the time I was served with Serge Benhayon’s ill-fated defamation claim, I found that the College of Universal Medicine DGR (deductible gift recipient) endorsement, granted in 2012, had been revoked.
But there was no announcement or information about that on the College’s website. I let it go for a few months to see if the College’s directors, Serryn O’Regan, Charles Wilson, Alison Greig, Natalie Benhayon, Desiree Delaloye, Anne McRitchie or Deb McBride would acknowledge it, and how they were going to explain it to donors.
Particularly, since I’d made complaints to charity regulators in 2013.
My complaints to charity authorities
The ACNC initiated an investigation and invited me to assist. The senior investigator told me he had authority to make referrals to the ATO, and that he’d made an appointment to do so. He was particularly interested in information I provided about UM’s personnel and business structure. He was not permitted to go into detail about the referral. The charity authorities are not permitted to notify complainants of the outcomes of their complaints.
I was interested in how CoUM’s management would explain the disendorsement because several of the charity’s directors had been publishing allegations since May 2014, on websites owned by Benhayon, that I was a vexatious complainant, that all my complaints were dismissed and that I never provided any evidence to authorities to back my complaints.
When Benhayon founded the College, he claimed it had been established as a repository for his self-published teachings – so that his toilet-based ‘work’ wouldn’t ‘get bastardised’. He stood down from his directorship in September 2012 immediately after journalist Josh Robertson asked him questions about the charity’s constitution and his relationship to the charity and its financial arrangements.
The College’s ‘charity’ activities and Benhayon’s Universal Medicine commercial activities were barely distinguishable from each other. In other words, the charity promotes Benhayon and his business. To this day it really does nothing but promote an anti-social cult and its associates and their businesses. Charity activities are supposed to benefit the public. If charities operate to benefit private individuals that is a breach of charity law.
I knew the authorities had acted on my complaints because the College’s activities changed dramatically after the ACNC commenced its investigation. Founding chairman, Serge Benhayon, took a step back from his ‘volunteer service’ to the charity – that is – running his onstage lectures in ‘esoteric’ claptrap. (Someone recently said the College’s courses and presentations are made available for ‘free’. That is incorrect. The College does not run free events.)
The College also had plans to lease Benhayon’s Wollongbar property, the ‘Hall of Ageless Wisdom’ at 37 Converys Lane, and later purchase the premises from him. Followers were told that by throwing money into the purchase, they could own their own building. At the outset the Fiery Building Fund website did not distinguish the charity activities from Serge Benhayon’s private commercial business. Followers were told they were raising money for the new ‘Universal Medicine Centre’ where its operations would be UM’s commercial events and courses, plus a clinic space and aged care facility.
Don’t let anyone tell you that the College of Universal Medicine has nothing to do with Benhayon’s business. When the College began taking donations it collected the funds through UM’s commercial study.universalmedicine.com.au website. I assume those were handled by the UM corporation’s financial officer, Deborah Benhayon. To this day, the College’s address as registered with the Charities Commission is 15 Blue Hills Avenue, Goonellabah; the address of the UM clinic and commercial headquarters, owned by Serge.
After I made my complaints, all plans for the College to lease/purchase Benhayon’s property evaporated. The College’s tax deductible building fund abruptly shut down and the accounts for 2015 – 2016 showed that its approx. $580k in proceeds vanished.
When I asked Alison Greig via Twitter what had happened I got one of her characteristically cordial replies.
Following my enquiry, the College hurriedly published a blurb on its website stating words to the effect that the DGR endorsement had been revoked ‘voluntarily’, a la, on 2 October 2015, the charity had begged the ATO to take the deductible gift recipient status away from them because they found its eligibility regime oppressive.
That nonsense is still on the website as I write. (And archived Feb 2019.)
When I publicly questioned what became of the $580k gift fund, there was silence.
Serge’s defamation claim was opportune in some senses, enabling me to obtain documents relevant to the imputations he claimed were damaging him. The charity documents were relevant to imputations that he is dishonest, exploitative and preys on cancer patients. Dishonest in publishing false allegations about me, and exploitative for extracting money from of his repeat customers for products, services and other appeals that are so obviously worthless.
I subpoenaed the College of Universal Medicine and then tendered in evidence the letters showing the outcomes of my complaints. In short, those documents show the Charities Commission put conditions on the proposed lease arrangement. The ACNC stipulated that the College premises were not to be used for any activity other than the activities of the charity. That meant Serge couldn’t coast along running his money-raking show at Converys Lane at the same time that he was collecting rent on a premises he owns from a charity that promotes him and his business. The Charities Commission questioned the College’s potential use of tax exempt funds to improve a privately owned building, and the difficulty in safeguarding the charity’s assets in the event Benhayon sold his building out from under it.
But the piece de resistance is that the Tax Office revoked the College’s DGR endorsement in February 2015. Eight months before the College claims they begged to have it taken away. There was nothing ‘voluntary’ about it. The College did not ‘opt out’ as the blurb above suggests.
The ATO’s 27 page ruling was sent to the charity’s board at the end of an 18 month investigation. The ATO found the College is not a College. It’s not a school according to their definitions. Therefore its ‘school building fund’ is not eligible for tax deductions. It also found that its directors had breached their obligations and duties as public trustees by failing to safeguard the charity’s public assets.
The findings call into question Benhayon’s DA applications to Ballina Shire Council, as recently as 2017, where he has characterised the building as ‘an approved educational institution’. It’s not, and never really was. It’s an events venue; a business premises for his commercial spirituality scam.
And what is the public benefit of a ‘charity’ that publishes deceptive and misleading information on its website? If its donors were given the excuse published on its website, that the board volunteered to have the DGR revoked, it’s deliberately misled its donors as well.
Somehow though, despite being disendorsed as a deductible gift recipient, and despite the ATO finding that it’s not a school because it does not operate with any genuine educational purpose or activity, the ‘College’, is still registered as a charity for ‘advancing education’.
For the last couple of years the College ran ‘presentations’ at Gold Coast public libraries. The presenters were UM promoters, including esoteric practitioners who staff its clinics. That came to a halt earlier this year, probably thanks to those of us who wrote letters to the Council, and perhaps some pressure from the press. The College now only pushes its recorded ‘online courses’, and runs one activity on the Gold Coast – an addictions support group at an undisclosed address in Carrara. Which is one too many.
It’s time the thing was packed up.
At the trial of Benhayon v Rockett, Benhayon was cross-examined on his profits. Given that one of the imputations I proved true is that Serge Benhayon is dishonest, who knows how to take the evidence he gave. He objected to turning his financial documents over to me during the discovery process, so I successfully took him to a hearing to get court orders for him to do so.
Closer to the trial, the College of Universal Medicine tried to argue against my subpoena, and applied to the court to be allowed to redact the identities of donors. Again the court ruled in my favour.
We learned that Benhayon declares his Universal Medicine business turnover (the clinic, the events, the subscriptions) is around $2m per annum. He told the court that since 2011 he has only charged 20% of his clients for their healing sessions.
(He also told the court that beings on other planets have no arms or legs.)
Serge said that his taxable income in 2016 was $188,000. His wife, Miranda’s was $176,000 and Miranda was able to put $150,000 into her superannuation account in 2017. UM’s profits go into a family trust, and the trustee, Serge, pays Natalie, Michael and Curtis Benhayon and their spouses a distribution from that trust each year. You could say their income is controlled by him. In 2016 he paid Natalie $130,000, Michael $100,000, Curtis $60,000 and Isabella $35,000 out of the trust on top of their wages (which are considerably less than those amounts, probably to keep their taxable income in lower taxation brackets). First wife and CFO Deborah Benhayon is paid a salary. Having paid the family, Serge paid another $400k+ into a separate investment trust, of which he and Miranda are the trustees.
Serge is 50% shareholder of Evolve College (formerly the Australian College of Massage) which turns over several million per annum, with a profit of just under $1m per year.
We know that he got $1.4m out of deceased cancer patient Judith McIntyre in 2014. In 2010, another client who died from cancer, Rita Bone, left Benhayon her half of the 3 bedroom home in Goonellabah she owned with her partner. I estimate that equity to be worth around $300,000.
I also got court orders compelling Benhayon to produce all documents recording gifts and bequests to him or his business interests. The documents he produced told us that independent of donations to the College charity, he collected $116,000 from followers in the year 2011 – 2012, and another $270,000 from followers to service his mortgage on the Unimed Brisbane property between 2011 and 2016.
Neil Gamble also initially funded UM’s failed online promotional juggernaut, Unimed Living, with followers pressured not only into providing all of its content for no pay, but funding its operational costs.
That is the total of information Benhayon gave us on gifts to him and his business.
We also remember the $126,000 in donations Natalie raised in 2015 to launch her ‘international TV career‘ – which materialised as 3 tedious Vimeo videos that you have to pay $3 each to view.
We know that Serge owns three properties under his own name, the UM clinic and Unimed House in Blue Hills Avenue, and the Hall of Ageless Wisdom in Wollongbar. He owns his dual occupancy Tregeagle estate with Miranda, the house in Goonellabah with Rita Bone’s partner, and the Unimed Brisbane property at 135 Brougham Street Fairfield with Susan Scully. All have been extensively renovated. There may be more that I don’t know about, but those alone are worth at rock bottom estimate, $9m.
We also know that UM followers raised about £2m to construct the Sound Training Centre in Tytherington, near Frome, Somerset. That property is used just about exclusively by Serge and his daughter Simone as business premises for their UK commercial activities, at very low rates of hire.
Despite paying $1.2m to my lawyers earlier this year, on top of God knows how much he paid his own legal team, Serge was recently seen wafting around in a white, late model 911 Porsche. He’s not short of dosh.
Thanks to the subpoena to the College I tendered this ledger of donations to its DGR building fund in evidence. It shows that just 27 donors had made tax deductible donations totalling over $580,000 to the Fiery Building Fund by the time it was shut down by the ATO (i.e. between 2011 and 2015). The largest donation, $300k, was made by ‘Maintenance Experts’, an IT business owned by Stephen Ninnes of Brisbane. Ninnes was also the previous owner of the Unimed Brisbane property in Fairfield.
The donors are:
- Anne McRitchie (Anne Barnes) $1,000.00
- Gayle Cue $500.00
- Jacinta Nelson $50.00
- Bio Clean Solutions $2,800.00
- Josephine Bell (Johnston) $50,000.00
- Lachlan Cordell $1,550.00
- Lucy Dahill $200.00
- Marika Cominos $170.00
- Bernadette Glass $4,600.00
- Dr Rachel Hall (Evolve Dental Healing) $30,000.00
- Caroline Raphael $60,000.00
- Roberta Himing $666.00
- Gabriele Conrad $4,000.00
- Helen Giles $495.00
- Sally Scott (now Sally Green) $1,500.00
- Integrative Pulmonary (Dr Samuel Kim) $4,800.00
- Complimentary Comp $20,000.00
- Sharon Gavioli $1,500.00
- Maintenance Experts (Stephen Ninnes) $300,000.00
- Tony & Rowena Parke $5,000.00
- Dr Jane Barker $3,000.00
- Dr Rachel Mascord $1,000.00
- Evisen Pty Ltd (Greg & Carmin Hall) $17,000.00
- Greg Jordan $1,000.00
- Anne-Maree Langford $3,000.00
- Waltraud Foidl $450.00
- Neil Gamble $50,000.00
The ledger suggests that the money was refunded to the donors. I found that odd, given that the College’s constitution stipulates that if the DGR is revoked, the gift fund (which is public money) has to be wound up, and the money transferred to another charity or institution with a DGR endorsement.
Much of the evidence about gifts to Benhayon and UM (including the College) comes across as esoteric. We know that Benhayon has been appealing for money from followers since 2008. We know the kind of language he used to work over Judith McIntyre. (Hit play.)
He has repeatedly stipulated that donations are to be made anonymously, lest his faith-full become so possessed by the energy of ‘jealousy & comparison’ about who can throw the most money at him that they claw each other to shreds.
The Fiery Building Fund was launched with all sorts of fanfare in 2013. It even held a fundraising picnic at Converys Lane to extract dosh from the ‘students’. Its ‘community’ is feted to comprise between 750 and 2,000 followers. About 300 very committed devotees constantly publicly prostrate themselves to their cause. Most of them work inordinate hours daily on UM’s ‘Expression Project‘ fulfilling their set quota of blog comments and social media shares, deifying his nibs. So I was surprised to learn that when their beloved community was given the opportunity to own its own building, and they were offered the incentive of tax deductibility on their donations, only 27 of them forked out.
UPDATE: 2 November 2019 – College of UM continues to mislead donors and public
The College’s management has published a bent statement in response to the ABC News and Northern Star reports referring to ‘misinformation’ reported in the media. They don’t have the guts to specify which media orgs or what that misinformation was. Both outlets reported the content of documents produced by the College under subpoena and tendered in evidence at the trial of Benhayon v Rockett.
From the statement:
In 2015 the College voluntarily withdrew from the Deductable [sic] Gifts [sic] Recipient regime when it became clear that the ATO had decided that they intended to restrict the taxation regime to educational institutions offering only formal education pathways.
What nonsense. It was not voluntary, as I pointed out above. The misleading claim that the College voluntarily withdrew from the regime in October 2015 is still posted on the CoUM website. But the letter from the tax office that I tendered shows that the DGR endorsement was revoked in February 2015, 8 months earlier, and back-dated to August 2011 when the College was registered.
From the ATO:
CoUM was endorsed as a DGR on 25 August 2011. However, CoUM did not have school paperwork until our continuous review started in April 2014…
CoUM has not been entitled to the DGR endorsement for a school building fund under item 2.1.10 since it was established on 25 August 2011. (Para 171, ATO letter)
In other words, the College, from the outset, never met the ATO’s criteria.
If the ABC and Northern Star really did publish misinformation, where is the evidence? I subpoenaed the College. Nothing in the subpoenaed material contradicts the evidence I tendered. The news outlets reported the content of the documents I tendered. The founder of the College, Serge Benhayon, was in court. The chairman of the College, Serryn O’Regan, another director Alison Greig, and the charity’s bookkeeper, Deborah Benhayon, were all present in court for the whole three weeks of evidence. None of them made a peep, let alone brought forward any evidence to the contrary. And let’s get real, you can’t voluntarily withdraw from an endorsement after it’s been officially, comprehensively and unequivocally revoked.
If you want to read the ATO’s letter for yourself download it at this link.
The College has kept a meticulous record of all accounts including donations with such donations quarantined in separate School Building Fund accounts in accordance with the relevant legislation. Hence when The College withdrew from the DGR regime in 2015, all funds collected during the College’s period of DGR status were returned to donors (along with accrued interest), with the full knowledge and assent of the ATO and the ACNC. coum.org
Rubbish. The ATO letter includes the finding that the donations were kept in two separate bank accounts, and as for the account holding the bulk of the funds:
The ownership of the account was not under CoUM School Building Fund. It means the public money was flowing to the College rather than to a Public Fund…
Therefore, the responsible persons of CoUM acting for a qualifying body breach due responsibility and obligation as public trustee…
The responsible persons of CoUM… failed to distinguish the accounts between CoUM and CoUM SBF [school building fund]. A number of operational items have been included in the accounts of the CoUM SBF. Significant amount of gift donation income (public money) has been passed to CoUM and saved under the name of CoUM rather than CoUM SBF. These findings indicated the responsible persons failed to conduct the duties as required as being a public fund’s trustee. (paras 158 – 160, & 171, ATO letter)
Most of that evidence, again, was read aloud in court by my lawyer during the tender, and no evidence whatsoever was offered by Team Sergio to disprove it.
As for ‘the full knowledge and assent of the ATO’, I tendered another letter used as evidence when the College argued that they wanted to redact the names of donors from subpoenaed documents. Justice McCallum refused, and found that the ATO required the College to disclose the names to the ATO so that the tax office could ensure that the donors who received refunds amended their tax returns. If the College did not refund the donors, and provide the proper paperwork to prove that they had, the only other option was to transfer the funds to a real charity – that is, one that operates to benefit the public, and isn’t a promotional racket for a socially harmful cult that continues to exhibit contempt for its donors and the public with its deceptive and misleading statements.