EXCLUSIVE: They are the so-called Armenian-Australian charity organisations which seemingly provide no real charitable works but that didn’t stop the allegedly corrupt former NSW Premier turned new telco exec, Gladys Berejiklian, funneling thousands of taxpayer dollars to community groups heavily linked to her own electorate officer which some say are nothing but fronts for political and ideological factions based overseas. Matilda Duncan with this investigation.
The Liberal Party accepted thousands of dollars in donations from an Armenian interest charity with ties to Gladys Berejiklian’s former seat of Willoughby, the Representative for the Republic of Artsakh and an Armenian lobbyist group while she was the Premier of New South Wales and Member for Willoughby, NSW Electoral Commission records show.
The charity that made the Liberal Party donations – the Armenian Relief Society – is also linked to a former Electorate Officer for Berejiklian, with the staffer having appeared on Berejiklian’s behalf at a Willoughby City Council meeting in 2019.
While Berejiklian was Premier, the NSW Government awarded the Armenian lobby group – named the Armenian National Committee – thousands of dollars in grants and regularly pursued their interests in Parliament.
CHARITY OR ARMENIAN POLITICAL GROUP?
Donations totalling just under three thousand dollars were made to the Liberal Party in March 2019 by a charity operating in NSW named the Armenian Relief Society, which over the past decade has claimed to undertake ‘humanitarian work’, ‘disaster relief’, ‘aged care activities’, ‘relief of poverty, sickness, or needs of the aged’ with a focus on the ‘empowerment of women’.
According to its charity registration, the Armenian Relief Society has recently reduced the scope of its work, which it reports is carried out by 250 volunteers—to include only ‘social gatherings for seniors’ and ‘community information nights’.
The Armenian Relief Society is overseen by an influential Armenian lobby group, the Armenian National Committee, that operates internationally in over 30 countries to promote Armenian political agendas, including the ‘right to self-determination of the Armenians of the Republic of Artsakh’, ‘democratic prosperity in Armenia’ and ongoing recognition of the Armenian Genocide in World War 1. Within Australia, the group states its aims are ‘to influence and guide Australian Government policy on matters of interest to the Armenian-Australian community’ and ‘foster public awareness in support of a free, united and independent Armenia’.
The Armenian National Committee is an affiliate group of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, an Armenian political party that has historically wielded immense influence within that country, though today, it has only a handful of representatives in the parliaments of Armenia, Artsakh and Lebanon.
At times, advocacy from the Armenian National Committee has included the defence of the U.S. restricting aid to the government of Azerbaijan and promoting negative sentiments about Turkey and Azerbaijan.
The Australian branch of the Armenian National Committee is located in Sydney, within Berejiklian’s former electorate of Willoughby.
An image from the Armenian National Committee of America website [Image: Supplied / anca.org]
FANS OF BEREJIKLIAN
The Armenian Relief Society, National Committee and Revolutionary Federation all have connections to former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian going back several decades.
Berejiklian, an Armenian-Australian who speaks fluent Armenian, was once—according to the National Committee—an “outspoken” member of the Armenian Youth Federation of Australia, the youth wing of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.
Berejiklian hurriedly resigned as premier in October last year in the wake of an announcement by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption that it was investigating whether she broke the law by failing to report matters that she “suspected on reasonable grounds concerned or may concern corrupt conduct” by her secret ex-lover, the already-married and now former Wagga Wagga MP, Daryl Maguire.
Still under investigation to this very day, just this week Berejiklian was appointed into a newly created senior executive role by telecommunications giant Optus, owned by Singtel, a corporation controlled by the government of Singapore.
Apparently, she will be the telco giant’s new managing director in its enterprise, business and institutional division.
It seems the allegedly corrupt former premier finally scored that plum corporate role she was long hoping for after a torrid career in the political trenches came to an end. In that, she follows in the much-admired, courageous similar path forged by others of her ilk and class after they had long outstayed their welcomes: the likes of Bob Carr, Barry O’Farrell and Mike Baird all rushing to highly-paid cruisy jobs in the corporate sector with the likes of Macquarie Bank, Racing Australia and NAB respectively.
The former Premier has also had involvement with the Armenian National Committee, having held a board position early in her political career and been awarded the title of “Armenian-Australian Community’s Friend of the Year” by the Committee.
The Armenian National Committee outlined Berejiklian’s extensive involvement with their lobby group in a congratulatory article they published in 2017 in response to Berejiklian’s promotion to Premier: “Berejiklian has been involved in many community Armenian community organisations since her youth, from her scouting and basketball days under the Homenetmen Australia banner,” the post reads, “to her days as an outspoken up-and-comer in the Armenian Youth Federation of Australia, all the way to her learning and practicing the political ropes as a Board member of the Armenian National Committee of Australia.”
The post continued: “ANC-AU congratulated Berejiklian on behalf of the Armenian-Australian community, many of whom personally know the new Premier.”
At the time of Berejiklian’s ascension to Premier, the Managing Director of the ANC-AU at the time, Vache Kahramanian commented: “Our community continues to be proud of Ms Berejiklian as she is an inspiration to all Armenian-Australians. This latest achievement is testament to her hard work on behalf of the people of New South Wales since entering public office in 2003, and we at the Armenian National Committee look forward to continuing working with her in the State’s highest office.”
THE CHAMPAGNE BREAKFAST PAYMENTS
In March 2019, the month of the NSW State Election, the Liberal Party sold tickets to attend an exclusive breakfast with Premier Berejiklian. Tickets were just under $1000 a head, putting it out of reach for vast numbers of the citizens she claimed to represent.
Those that could afford tickets included representatives of the Armenian Relief Society and Armenian National Committee, with the Armenian Relief Society charity paying $2,970 to the Liberal Party for the purchase of three $990 tickets to the champagne breakfast. The payment was disclosed by the Liberal Party in NSW Electoral Records.
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In buying their seats at the table, the Armenian Relief Society used charity money that their community donors could have reasonably expected to go towards providing the ‘disaster relief’ and ‘aged care activities’ it advertised, which the Relief Society claimed helped vulnerable populations like migrants, the elderly and victims of disaster, to instead financially support wealthy Liberal Party leaders to stay in Government.
In donating to assist the Government to continue wielding power, the Armenian Relief Society implicitly encouraged the Government to use taxpayer money to pursue agendas important not to all taxpayers, but specific to the Armenian Relief Society charity and their management.
In declaring their donations to the Liberal Party NSW Head Office, it appears the Armenian Relief Society may have dated their declaration to ensure it was recorded outside of campaign period for the NSW State Election—ensuring they avoided notice from the charity regulators that disallow election campaign donations.
The $2,970 donation made by the Armenian Relief Society was declared on March 28, 2019—after the NSW State Election took place on March 23. Other attendees at the same breakfast, including members the Aremenian National Committee and four other separate ticket holders, declared their donations before the election date, on various dates that fell between February 20 and a latest date of March 21—two days before the state election.
The Armenian Relief Society’s donation to the Liberal Party was first reported by Michael West Media in October 2020, who mentioned the expensive breakfast within a brief story on three charities the respected independent media outlet identified as having made donations to the Liberal Party between 2018-2020.
The federal charity regulator, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), states that charities must not have a ‘disqualifying political purpose’ as a requirement of maintaining their charity registration and tax-exempt status.
Charities should not support or oppose a particular political party or candidate, according to the ACNC website, should not make donations to political candidates and political parties during election campaigns, and should “think carefully” before attending events organised by a political party, as these actions may constitute a disqualifying political purpose.
Exactly what the Armenian Relief Society has spent the bulk of their charity money on over the past decade remains a secret. As the charity is classified by the ACNC as “small”, it has never been required to submit financial statements to the regulator, despite having balances that varied from $30,000 in 2012 to $80,000 last year.
The ACNC is exempt from Freedom of Information law, meaning no member of the public can seek information relating to a charity’s registration, finances, changes to listings on the ACNC website, or the outcomes of any investigations undertaken into charity conduct.
A CHARITY RUN BY POLITICAL LOBBYISTS
The Armenian Relief Society has been granted a charity registration by the Federal Government for a decade, despite its public affiliation with an international political lobby group and members of its management also having involvement at senior levels with the Armenian National Committee.
The charity appears to be run by the ANC-AU, with the lobby group openly acknowledging they “represent” the Armenian Relief Society charity.
Both the charity and the National Committee list the same business address on Penshurst Road in North Willoughby, in Berejiklian’s former electorate.
Same address: The Armenian National Committee of Australia shares an apparent home with the Armenian Relief Society (Images: Supplied)
The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission listing for the Armenian Relief Society shows a member of the Armenian National Committee, Janet Michaelian, is the only person listed with the Federal Government as being responsible for the charity, overseeing its finances as treasurer.
Janet Michaelian is the wife of the representative of the republic of Artsakh in Australia, Kailar Michaelian. The Artsakh Republic is one of the countries the Armenian National Committee represents in their lobbying.
Kailar Michaelian’s office, the Office of the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh to Australia, shares the same Willoughby business address of 259 Penshurst Street with the Armenian National committee and the Armenian Relief Society.
Same address again: The office of the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh to Australia shares the same apparent home with The Armenian National Committee of Australia and the Armenian Relief Society (Image: Supplied)
Apart from Janet Michaelian, no other board members of the Armenian Relief Society are listed with the ACNC, despite the charity claiming to have 250 registered volunteers.
Numerous attempts were made to contact Ms Michaelian by True Crime News Weekly— through both the Armenian Relief Society and Kailar Michaelian’s office—about her role as Treasurer of the Armenian Relief Society and to seek more information about the charity itself.
Although Ms Michaelian would not speak to us, her husband said in a brief phone call with True Crime News Weekly that she’s “no longer involved” in the ARS, that it was a “voluntary position”, that they only met once every two years, and that last year at the meeting she “basically completed her term”.
ARMENIA MEDIA & BEREJIKLIAN’S ELECTORATE OFFICER
The contact email listed for the Armenian Relief Society belongs to Nora Meloian Sevagian, who has been identified in the media as the ‘Australian representative of the Armenian Relief Society’.
Ms Sevagian has been linked to the Armenian National Committee for years in various capacities, regularly acting as a MC for their events, fundraisers and telethons and working as a reporter for the Committee’s media outlet, Armenia Media.
Armenia Media has for over a decade regularly published pro-Liberal material and uncritical articles about Berejiklian. The news site has also provided State Election guides for the NSW Armenian community, published lists of candidates the Armenian National Committee had chosen to support based on their positions on Armenian-Australian issues in upcoming elections, and polling guides focused on the Ryde City Council and Willoughby City Council areas they wrote were designed “to help Armenian-Australians when they head to the polls”.
The outlet has openly favoured Premier Berejiklian, publishing articles filled with adoration for her without any accompanying research or information about the impacts of her actions as a politician.
When Berejiklian resigned late last year after ICAC revealed she was being investigated for a potential breach of the ministerial code of conduct after failing to declare her relationship with fellow politician Daryl Macguire, Armenia Media published no information about the ICAC investigation and simply called her “a beacon of pride to Armenian-Australians” and “a class act”.
Nora Sevagian interviewing the ANC-AU Chief Executive Haig Kayserian for Armenia Media in 2020 (Image: Supplied)
Sevagian has also been directly tied to Berejiklian in a professional capacity, having acted as an Electorate Officer for the Premier at a City of Willoughby Council meeting in 2019—representing Berejiklian in her role as the Member for Willoughby in her absence.
Ms. Sevagian was contacted for comment by True Crime News Weekly but declined to respond to any of our questions and instead chose to attack the integrity of this publication and its motives instead.
“Nor do I intend to engage with a ‘publication’ which clearly has ulterior motives in disparaging Armenians and Armenian-Australian Community organisations. As an ‘investigative journalist’ you may wish to look into that issue.”
True Crime News Weekly had asked Sevagian for clarification about what her role at the Armenian Relief Society has entailed and the nature of the humanitarian and disaster relief work conducted by the charity in the past. True Crime News Weekly also asked whether Sevagian oversaw the charity’s donations to the Liberal Party and whether the donations had been announced to charity donors.
True Crime News Weekly had also asked Sevagian to elaborate on her professional ties with Gladys Berejiklian, and how she came to be selected as an electorate officer for Berejiklian at the City of Willoughby Council.
CHARITY REGULATOR SPEAKS OUT
Contacted for comment on the Armenian Relief Society and its supposed charitable activities, a spokesperson for the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) provided a lengthy response about the legalities of charities undertaking political advocacy that included the following statements:
“By law, the ACNC cannot discuss the circumstances of a particular charity. However, we can speak generally about the rules relating to political advocacy and charities.
“Political advocacy and campaigning is a complex area for charities … One purpose that will disqualify an organisation from being a registered charity is promoting or opposing a political party or candidate for political office.”
The ACNC statement continued: “To determine the ‘purpose’ of a charity, the ACNC will look at the charity’s governing rules, its activities, any material published by the charity, and any other relevant matter.”
The ACNC told True Crime News Weekly that “some things that may show” whether or not an organisation has a disqualifying political purpose could include:
- the extent to which the organisation’s promotion or opposition of a political party or candidate aligns with the purposes of the organisation
- whether the organisation promotes or opposes a party or candidate generally or in relation to specific policies that are relevant to its purpose
- the extent to which the organisation’s resources are directed at promoting or opposing the party or candidate for political office
- the links between the organisation and the party or candidate, including members in common, campaigns and publications, and
- the extent to which the organisation’s expressed view of a party or candidate is based on reasoned policy argument or research.
FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS
Other Armenian Liberal Party donors that bought tickets to the March 2019 breakfast with Berejiklian included Artin Jebejian, a psychiatrist prosecuted in 2013 by the NSW Medical Professional Standards Committee after failing to provide adequate care prior to an involuntary patient’s death; Garrabet Simonian, a representative of the Armenian Business Development Association; Todd Karamian, the owner of Bluepoint Consulting, a Sydney wealth management firm; and Dr. Stepan Kerkyasharian, who went on to receive two three-year NSW Government board appointments under the Berejiklian Government, eight months after making his Liberal Party campaign donation.
The Armenian National Committee also bought two tickets to the $990 a head breakfast with Berejiklian, and donated an additional $4,000 to the Liberal Party in the lead-up to the 2019 election—from September 2018 right up until two days before the election on March 23—through numerous other Liberal Party gala dinner and breakfast events.
The Committee received plenty of benefits in return.
The Berejiklian Government provided the Armenian National Committee a $7,000 grant in 2019 to host an “Armenian Festival” in Sydney, which took place on December 16, 2018. The grant was administered through Multicultural NSW.
According to a report from the Armenian Church of Sydney, Berejiklian attended the event to give an opening speech: “The Premier, the Hon Gladys Berejiklian attended, as did representatives of the various Armenian organisations and high-ranking political officials. The festival commenced with the Premier’s opening remarks, firstly in English followed in Armenian, expressing her pride as an Armenian State Premier of the organisation of this community event.”
Contacted for comment by True Crime News Weekly about the nature of the grant application process for the Armenian Festival funding and how many other applications the NSW Government had received for the funding, Multicultural NSW declined to respond.
BEREJIKLIAN’S WORK FOR ARMENIAN INTERESTS
The support of the Armenian community was helpful to Berejiklian winning and holding her seat of Willoughby for almost two decades, and she certainly represented their interests as an elected official.
In the wake of Berejiklian being awarded a medal from the President of Armenia, the Armenian National Committee explained Berejiklian’s ongoing advocacy on Armenia agendas on their website: “Since her election as the NSW State Member for Willoughby in 2003, Berejiklian has been instrumental in representing Armenian community concerns in Parliament and educating her fellow parliamentarians on issues of importance, including Federal Australian recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the rights to self-determination of Armenians of the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh.”
The ANC-AU wrote that Berejiklian was also “instrumental in helping ANC-AU organise the visit to Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh by a delegation of politicians in 2013.”
ICAC hearings and evidence made public over the last year or so however put Berejiklian in a much harsher, and perhaps, more realistic light than the ‘perfect-prefect-unlucky-in-love’ vibe her hangers-on and acolytes were keen to portray to a dumbed-down media during her tenure in the top job.
Instead, it’s more than likely she was just yet another in the long line of ethically and morally compromised politicians willing to look the other way when a dodgy mate – in ICAC’s case a “secret boyfriend” in the burly shape of the already-married Liberal MP, Daryl Maguire – tries to swag one dodgy deal after the other with the benefit of political inside information.
It’s how this sodden state has operated for a long time, maybe ever since the White Man’s invasion.
Berejiklian was supposed to represent the interests of people across New South Wales, but it appears that lobby groups, exclusive breakfasts, political donations and long-standing community relationships were the most reliable route to receiving advocacy from her in Parliament.