Senior CBA executives have faced questions about the removal of banned Commonwealth Financial Planning adviser Don Nguyen in July 2009.
The publication of allegations about Mr Nguyen in InvestorDaily on 22 June 2009, one month before the Commonwealth FP decision to lodge a breach report with ASIC on 27 July 2009, was a major sticking point in a public hearing yesterday.
CBA group executive wealth management Annabel Spring, CBA general counsel/group executive corporate affairs David Cohen and CBA executive general manager wealth management advice Marianne Perkovic appeared before the Senate inquiry into the performance of ASIC in Canberra.
Responding to questions from committee chair Senator Mark Bishop, Mr Cohen said Mr Nguyen was initially suspended by Commonwealth FP in September 2008 but was permitted to return to work after a CBA investigation was “inconclusive” in its findings.
“We don’t think the decision made around what to do with the inconclusive findings was the right one, but that decision was made by management at the time,” he said.
Mr Bishop asked the panel what had prompted Commonwealth FP to file a breach report with ASIC regarding Mr Nguyen on 27 July 2009.
In response, Ms Perkovic said the breach report was the culmination of customer complaints, engagement with ASIC and an internal investigation into Mr Nguyen.
“As a result of looking at all of that information, the business at that time did make the decision to further investigate and suspend Don Nguyen,” said Ms Perkovic.
By way of a follow-up question, Mr Bishop asked to what extent the breach report was prompted by the publication of allegations about Mr Nguyen in InvestorDaily on 22 June 2009.
“In reviewing the situation at that time that was one contributing factor, but not the sole one,” said Ms Perkovic.
Pressed on whether the publication of the allegations was “significant” by Mr Bishop, she answered: “I think it was significant in the case that there was obviously information that had come to light that wasn’t being given back into the business.”
To which Mr Bishop countered: “But it wasn’t so significant that you thought to mention it in your answer to my first question.”
“You gave me four reasons, none of which was the InvestorDaily publication. Why is that? You’ve now conceded that it’s significant,” he said.
Ms Perkovic apologised, acknowledging that CBA did take the article into account – but she added there was already an investigation underway.
Former CBA employee and whisteblower Jeffrey Morris related a different version of events to the committee in the following session.
“On the 6th of July [CBA] accepted [Mr Nguyen's] resignation. But that had been extracted from him after a meeting the previous week. Three weeks later [CBA] put in a breach report,” he said.
“It was the InvestorDaily articles that forced their hand … It had nothing to do with the review after client complaints,” said Mr Morris.
He also offered up a different reason for the reinstatement of Mr Nguyen after his suspension in September 2008.
“Contrary to what was said earlier [by CBA executives], they knew Nguyen had done all the things he was accused of – he was caught red-handed,” he said.
“They announced that he’s been suspended for fraud and would not be coming back. The trouble is with the GFC going on they needed a planner to hose down Nguyen’s clients who were complaining.”
CBA offered Mr Nguyen’s client book to another planner along with instructions to placate the clients, but after a week the new planner "threw the phone back and said he wouldn’t have anything to do with it", said Mr Morris.
“So they brought Nguyen back and reinstated him and promoted him so he could fob off the clients and discourage them from making complaints about what had happened,” he said.