Charity co-founder sentenced for using Anzac memorial funds for personal use

A woman who claimed to be selling commemorative bricks honouring the Anzacs but instead used the money for her own personal living expenses has been sentenced to a 16-month intensive corrections order.

Yvonne Hall, who founded the Pozières Remembrance Association with her husband, Barry Gracey, in 2010 was sentenced in the Coffs Harbour local court on Monday.

The pair are now facing questions about the future of a memorial garden they promised to build in France with money raised and calls for them to be stripped of awards for their charitable efforts.

In 2014, the association started to fundraise for a memorial garden at the first world war battlefield, selling $50 bricks that would be used to pave the site.

The association soon attracted high-profile support, including from Suzuki Australia, the Melbourne Storm, and Nationals MP Damien Drum, who urged fellow MPs to buy a brick during a speech in federal parliament.

But some historians and veterans were wary at the time, cautioning those who bought the bricks against falling for “Anzackery” at the time of events commemorating the centenary of the first world war.

A NSW fair trading investigation found Hall misappropriated almost $148,000 gained from selling the bricks, most of which has since been repaid.

She repeatedly made transfers from the association’s bank account into her and Gracey’s personal accounts.

Gracey, who is also the president of the association, was not charged with any offences. He told fair trading he had not noticed the multiple transfers of association funds by Hall, the association secretary, into his personal bank account.

“This is a huge amount of money to be misused but it’s all the more disheartening knowing it was donated by well-wishing consumers thinking it was contributing to preserving the memory of Australian soldiers,” Valerie Griswold, the NSW fair trading investigations and enforcement executive director, said in a statement.

About 6,800 Australians who fought in the battle of Pozières, which started in July 1916, were either killed or later died of their wounds.

Hall and Gracey were awarded the French legion of honour in 2016 – an award that some of those who purchased bricks from the association want to see stripped.

The association’s supporters are also asking another question: what has happened to the garden?

Gracey confirmed earlier this month that the association still planned to produce the garden.

But when Guardian Australia contacted Signature Engraving, the Melbourne company that had produced 4,000 pavers paid for by the association, they were having trouble reaching Gracey to arrange for them to be picked up.

The 12-tonne of pavers, dozens of which Signature Engraving said contained spelling mistakes because they had not been proof-read by the association, had been sitting in five pallets at the company for almost a month before a freight company arrived to collect them last week.

Gracey, an army veteran, said the association would be wound up once the bricks were delivered to France and the memorial constructed as promised. He was provided with proofs of spelling on the bricks prior to their engraving.

The association remains registered with the Australian charities and not-for-profits commission.

Gracey said he had only had one person ask for a refund because he was still “set to achieve what he had set out to achieve”.

“Everybody that wants to contact me can contact me and I’ll pay them back out of their own pocket.

“I have not done anything bloody wrong, and I’m sick and tired of everyone out there saying I have.

“I was in the army for 28 years, I’m not into accounting, I’m into getting the job done.”

Jacqui Kennedy, who bought a brick from the association in 2015, refuted suggestions that only one person had asked Gracey for a refund, and urged French authorities to strip him and Hall of their honours.

Her calls were echoed by French army veteran Pierre Seillier, who had been concerned by the association’s activities in France.

This included the association funding the purchasing of land at Pozières by a French organisation controlled by two former local government officials.

One of the officials has previously advocated for the reconstruction of a model windmill on the site to replicate a structure which was destroyed during the war – a proposal which horrified Kennedy and Seillier.

Seillier said that because the parcels of land purchased by the association were in the name of another entity there was no guarantee the site of the memorial was secure.

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“I can say that many people here in France, people who work [to honour Australians], battlefield guides, are ashamed for what happened at Pozières.”

The International Guild of Battlefield Guides chairman, Mike Peters, who has led battlefield tours for more than 30 years, said he was concerned about the association as soon as he heard about it during one of his Anzac tours.

But Peters, a former major who served in the British army for 34 years, said the “Anzackery was impenetrable” and he could not convince people not to buy the bricks.

“Like many of my colleagues, I was immediately suspicious of the Pozières brick scheme,” he said.

“However, what seemed obvious to so many professional guides in the UK, and those living on the Somme itself, was clearly not picked up by those that donated to the scheme in Australia. The Anzac legacy is powerful and emotive, it had a huge influence on those involved, something that the [association] exploited.”

Peters said that despite the battlefield guides who work on the Somme having sympathy for those who had funded the scheme, there was no need for a memorial.

The association and French organisation have already built the “WWI Animals War Memorial” on part of the land, a memorial described by Peters as tacky and an eyesore.

“The memory of those dead deserves to be commemorated appropriately, and with dignity. There is no need for any new memorial on the windmill site; the existing plaques and information panels say all that needs to be said.”

Nationals MP Drum said he had been moved to support the association and provide accommodation for Gracey after hearing he was sleeping in his car during trips to Melbourne.

The association claimed on a now-removed website that dozens of politicians had bought bricks after Drum spoke to parliament.

But Drum said the couple appeared to have genuine reverence for the Anzacs and there was no indication they had used the money inappropriately.

“Yvonne and Barry, they lived with the backside out of their pants,” he said.

“This is not the story of a high-flying fraudster … this is a very sad finale to what is one of Australia’s saddest military events.”

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