ACS intimidation campaign seeks to silence critics

James Riley
Editorial Director

The Australian Computer Society has threatened InnovationAus with legal action over this publication’s coverage of the ACS’ botched attempt at a restructure last year and the Federal Court debacle that followed.

Acting for the ACS, law firm Clayton Utz has written to InnovationAus claiming “many” articles about the society’s attempt to restructure and the Federal Court case it provoked were defamatory and has demanded that they be removed from the website.

You can read the full Clayton Utz letter here. [InnovationAus will not be removing any of the ACS articles from the website. As is standard journalistic practice, InnovationAus is open to both criticism and constructive dialogue where there is a factual error or if the subject of a story feels they have been unfairly treated.]

InnovationAus is the second publication that the Australian Computer Society, its management, and legal representatives have threatened this month. The technology website iTWire also received a letter from Clayton Utz threatening legal action over its coverage of ACS’ failed restructure, the court case, and the general unrest that followed.

Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson: Outgoing chief executive officer at the troubled Australian Computer Society

iTWire subsequently removed 20 articles about the ACS from its service, which have been re-published by author Graeme Philipson on a personal website.

Although Clayton Utz’ letter is generally vague and does not clarify in any detail a specific example of where the ACS has been defamed in InnovationAus, it does note the period from October 2019 when this publication first started reporting on a group of dissatisfied members who were campaigning against the proposed restructure from an incorporated association in the ACT to become a Company Limited by guarantee.

That restructure was put to a vote at an special general meeting on October 25 2019, and was passed by a single vote. This outcome was challenged by senior ACS member Roger Clarke in the Federal Court citing voting irregularities.

The court ultimately sided with Mr Clarke, with Justice Michael Wigney offering a scathing assessment of the ACS’ handling of the special general meeting. The ACS, which was advised by Clayton Utz, was ordered to pay costs.

Justice Wigney called particular attention to the role played by former ACS president Yohan Ramasundara in chairing the meeting, the administration of ACS’ outgoing chief executive Andrew Johnson in convening the meeting, as well as former company secretary Andrew Madry’s handling of the vote and the treatment of proxies.

Justice Wigney said in the judgement: “Mr Ramasundara breached his duties as chair of the 25 October 2019 meeting by adopting a procedure which unreasonably and unjustifiably limited or curtailed debate concerning the special resolution.”

“Mr Ramasundara’s decision to adopt that procedure was not taken reasonably with a view to facilitating the purpose for which his power to regulate the meeting was conferred, which included to facilitate discussion and debate by those present at the meeting.”

The ACS is yet to properly deal with the fallout from the failed restructure and subsequent court case, including the reputational damage sustained by the very public and ongoing battle with a group of senior members.

Although the ACS has elected a new president in NSW Government chief data scientist Ian Oppermann, the drama appears to have had little impact on its central cast.

ACS chief executive Andrew Johnson announced his resignation from the ACS in July and is due to leave the organisation next month. But no successor has yet been named and there is growing speculation both internally and externally that Mr Johnson – who is also a member of the ACS management committee – will remain in the role for a period beyond October.

Although InnovationAus has not written about the Australian Computer Society for more than six months, the society asked its legal advisers Clayton Utz to warn the publication about further reporting.

The Clayton Utz letter drew particular attention to an InnovationAus report about its 2018/19 financial statement, as well as detailing some queries by ACS founding member Professor Ashley Goldsworthy seeking clarification about where some of the members’ funds had been invested.

Prof Goldsworthy, who is a four-time president of the ACS and has been a lifetime member since 1977, also sought more detail on the $1.6 million that ACS management spent last year on travel and accommodation, as well as more detail on the $2.3 million consulting expenses contained in the financial report.

Prof Goldsworthy has made pointed queries about the expenditures ranging from the cost of travel for senior executives to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, details of a senior executive study tour that funded federal politicians to Europe, and a further trip to Silicon Valley.

The article also detailed a 20 per cent growth in revenue to $45.18 million, compared to $36.63 million in 2017/18, and $33.54 million in 2016/17.

The ACS Financial Statements 2019, which were lodged in January with the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission, also shows that the association’s cash and cash-equivalents fell from $26.8 million in 2018 to $7.4 million in 2019 – a decrease of nearly $20 million.

While the statement also detailed that assets held in unspecified investment funds had grown from $0 in 2018 to more than $18.1 million in 2019, the senior members like Prof Goldsworthy have been calling for greater transparency in the way these member funds were being invested.

The report also details other line items in the ACS 2019 financial statement that raised eyebrows among the senior membership group that has fighting management over the direction of the organisation.

The ACS controversially moved its headquarters into a whole floor in Tower One at Barangaroo in Sydney, one of the most expensive offices addresses in Australia. The move helped to drive the cost of its property leases up from $739,508 on 2017 to $2.5 million in 2018, and more than $3.99 million in 2019, and increase of more than $3 million annually.

The ACS spent more than $4.9 million on marketing, PR and publications compared to $3.4 million two years ago.

Clayton Utz maintains that “the article conveys an imputation that ACS wastes money that should be used for member services” and leaves open-ended the number of other articles that may also be defamatory.

“Many of those articles, including articles of which you are the author, are defamatory, including of ACS,” Clayton Utz says in its letter dated September 22. “For example, the article entitled “ACS’ $45m revenue spurs new fight” published on 22 January 2020 conveys the imputation that ACS wastes money that should be used for member services.”

“As such, the articles have caused, and have the potential to continue to cause, significant damage to the reputation of ACS. Any future articles will amplify the harm suffered.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

  1. Sigh, I wonder who their strategic advisers are? Actions like this over matters such as these are really not the stuff of professional societies. The questions asked are surely ones ACS members and the wider community have an interest in, and, hence, should not be repressed. I am at a loss for words! Sigh! As I said when i wrote to MC and Congress last week, an unkind observers may see this an attack on press freedom.. Surely not how ACS wants to be seen?

  2. Raina Mason 4 years ago

    I am most disappointed in the ACS. I would have expected our industry’s member society to be transparent in its dealings and willing and able to answer these questions without much trouble.
    It further concerns me that the ACS is threatening InnovationAus and iTWire with legal action for reporting the news of interest to their subscribers. Our university pays for ACS memberships for our academics but we will have to review this if the ACS continues down the track of moving away from a member-led society.

  3. Cyrus Lesser 4 years ago

    I don’t understand why spreading Judge WIgney’s comments is defamatory. If the judge made the criticism how can it be defamatory to report that?

  4. Mr Andrew Mitchell 4 years ago

    Well done and congratulations for not backing down. I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that ACS management are trying to shut down investigative journalists trying to hold them to account. Please keep up the good work.

  5. Graeme 4 years ago

    So what do the members of ACS make of all this and what would they do if given the opportunity to remove the current controllers of ACS?

    Unfortunately, I don’t see any possibility that members will get any opportunity to express an opinion, far less to remove this cabal.

    ACS is structured in such a way that there is no direct accountability to the membership other than by a General Meeting that, as documented by Justice Wigney, the controllers will seek to manipulate in their favour.

    It is a pity Justice Wigney did not go a step further and order a spill of the current Management, at all levels, so that members could have a say and pass their verdict.

  6. ann moffatt 4 years ago

    well said IA. until the ACS responds to questions raised by many v senior members, anwers to which were requested nearly a year ago, this debacle will continue and of course CLUTZ will continue to earn legal and advisiory fees.

  7. Devin 4 years ago

    Hi James, I applaud the action of yourself and InnovationAus in not backing down at all. Please continue to expose the conduct of this diabolical set of people, leading this most important Computing Society; in an Australian context. As far as I’m aware your reporting is very well covered by the same regulations that has enabled the ABC, Fairfax and others to perform investigative reporting. You have my Back ????????

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