While then professor Justin O’Brien was hammering home the need for corporations to build trust and be accountable, behind the scenes he was wreaking havoc, writes Luke Stacey.
Selling himself as a “distinguished scholar of financial regulation”, former professor Justin O’Brien focused on “trust” to attract potential investors to his business initiative ‘The Trust Project’ at Monash Business School.
As Part 1 of this investigation noted, O’Brien was head of the Trust Project before he was forced to resign over allegations he had used his corporate credit card for personal expenses.
O’Brien has written numerous authoritative Opinion pieces for the Australian Financial Review around trust in financial regulation, including on the Banking Royal Commission; banks, law and morality; and the need for an integrity commission.
He is also an ambassador for the Transparency Taskforce scientific committee; a global not-for-profit organisation focusing on an efficient, fair and competitive financial services industry. The organisation lists O’Brien as a professor, yet his only current role appears to be as a PhD student at the University of Sydney.
The Taskforce also describes him as “Director, Rebuilding Trust”. “Rebuilding Trust” does not appear to exist as a company or an initiative with a website presence. It could be in reference to his Trust Project initiative, but that was disbanded following O’Brien’s dismissal from Monash in June 2018.
Transparency Taskforce has not responded to questions.
Despite writing about financial regulation on platforms such as the AFR and academic journal Law and Financial Markets Review, his regulation of his personal finances seems more problematic. O’Brien is alleged to have fled the United Arab Emirates, where he was working as a professor of business ethics between 2015 and 2016, with an unpaid personal loan of more than $100,000 from HSBC Sharjah.
WhatsApp messages show that debt collectors from the Alwasl International Group Collection Recovery are continuing to pursue O’Brien over that debt and the matter has been reported to Sharjah Police.
The mission statement of the Trust Project describes its aim as to rebuild public trust by increasing confidence in the corporate sector – to “embed integrity, responsibility and accountability (individual and corporate)”.
As Part 1 noted, Provost and Senior Vice President of Monash University Professor Marc Parlange issued O’Brien a letter of investigation on 13 June 2018.
The letter referred to discrepancies between how he had classified corporate and personal expenses.
Payments included a $529 dinner at Chin Chin Sydney Restaurant wrongfully claimed as a “research dinner”, accommodation expenses at the Sheraton Mirage Gold Coast for $1,241.82 “that did not include a breakdown/itemised invoice” and $245.46 in flights from Sydney to Cairns. The latter two expenses were wrongfully claimed as a “research trip”, according to the letter from Professor Parlange.
Additional costs at the Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas (primarily food and alcohol) totalled $4,135. O’Brien repaid the personal expenses after the university raised concerns.
However, MWM has evidence of other expenses on his Monash credit card that appear to be personal expenses – namely, multiple stays at the Sofitel Hotel Brisbane and the luxury Five-Star hotel The Merrion in Dublin between April 2017 and July 2018.
The costs amounted to $5,414 in Brisbane and some €6,100 in Dublin (AUD $9,955). It is unclear whether these expenses were repaid to the university.
Neither Professor Parlange nor Monash Business School responded to questions.
The letter of investigation also referred to the fact that , without the university’s authority, O’Brien entered into a $90,000 contract with web designer Brightlabs to build a website for TTP and passed the bill on to Monash Business School.
The Trust Project Consortium
O’Brien established the Trust Project as a Centre of Excellence, to be run by a consortium of institutions, with an operating budget of $400,000.
The consortium included Monash Business School, Monash Law School, Melbourne Law School, Queensland University of Technology (QUT), and University of Queensland (UQ).
UQ and QUT each committed $100,000 to the project. MWM asked the institutions whether their invested funds were repaid after the project was disbanded.
A spokesperson for UQ confirmed an initial contribution of $50,000. As for the remainder, a spokesperson said: “When UQ became aware of budget discrepancies we did not pay the other $50,000 and did not renew the agreement.”
A major component of the Trust Project was a global “travelling trust photographic exhibition” titled ‘Trust and its Discontents’, conceived by O’Brien.
In May 2018 he sent an update letter to Monash, claiming a number of institutions had agreed to be partners in the exhibition, including Deloitte, the OECD and Magnum Photos UK.
In that same month he also wrote to two companies that the project had also “secured $500k from the OECD to stage the global exhibition”.
Yet a spokesperson for the OECD said it wasn’t in fact approached until the end of 2018. The spokesperson also denied there was any formal partnership with O’Brien or TTP. They added that it “did not grant … permission to use the Organisation’s name or logo for any purpose”.
O’Brien’s separation agreement with Monash Business School gave him the opportunity to continue the Trust Project independently, which could have misled other organisations into thinking he continued to have the backing of Monash University.
One organisation was Tandem, an award-winning design consultancy in Holywood, Down, Northern Ireland. O’Brien approached the company in May 2018, writing in an email to Tandem and Magnum Photos UK: “I am delighted to share with you that we have secured $500k from the OECD to stage the global exhibition.”
Tandem’s creative director Andrew Todd confirmed the company was commissioned by O’Brien to produce a design for the global trust exhibition.
“We started work in June  when he confirmed funding and stopped work in September when we sensed there was something we were not being told,” Todd said.
“We invoiced him a total of €37,322.08 [AUD $60,940] which we have never been paid.”
When chasing up payment, Tandem received an email from O’Brien stating: “My Monash email will no longer be used or monitored. Please update your contacts to the following; [email protected]”.
Michael West Media asked Monash University why they allowed the former professor to continue with the project after his dismissal. No response was given.
Directors nominated without knowledge
O’Brien went on to register a company called Existential Research Ltd yet two of the three directors were nominated without their knowledge.
In October 2019, a former Deloitte partner, Kevin Nixon, discovered he had been named a director without his consent. He engaged a lawyer. Professor of Management at UTS Business School Thomas Clarke was informed by ASIC earlier this year that he had also been named as a director.
The third director as a result engaged a lawyer and immediately resigned.
Given Mr O’Brien’s long history of misrepresentation, the title of his latest book, ‘Trust, Accountability and Purpose: The Regulation of Corporate Governance’ seems rather unfortunate.
Justin O’Brien had not responded to questions at the time of publication.