K rock Football

“It was a nightmare”

North Geelong football director Paul Cotter and president Jason Habib. (Sports Media Image/Marcel Berens)

NORTH Geelong has welcomed the jail term handed to a former club treasurer who swindled the club out of nearly $90,000 as it looks to put one of the darkest periods in its 145-year history behind it.

53-year-old Norlane man Steven John Janssen was jailed for six months last Tuesday after pleading guilty in Geelong Magistrates Court to 22 charges related to the personal use of money from club accounts between November 2018 and February 2021.

Speaking for the first time since Janssen’s sentence was handed down, Magpies’ president Jason Habib and football director Paul Cotter says the club is satisfied with the outcome.

“I’ve always said if you do the crime, do the time,” Habib said. “(But), at the end of the day, I’m happy from a club point of view that we got most of the money back.

“When I’m sitting at home now and thinking ‘he got six months’ jail’, he deserves it because he’s put me and us through hell.

“In that same time, we’ve still got to run a club, and it was a nightmare.”

Steve Janssen during his stint as GDFL vice-president. (Sports Media Image/Marcel Berens)

TRUST ISSUES

Cotter says Janssen “abused” the trust placed in him by the North Geelong executive.

“It’s a warning to other clubs out there and people that think they can do it and get away with it,” he said.

“I don’t think there’ll be too many clubs around that have had money taken like that and got it back.”

Habib says he’s still none the wiser as to why Janssen, who has been stripped of his life membership of North Geelong, offended in the manner he did.

“Why would a guy like that, that’s well respected in Geelong like he is; done a s***load at this club, done a s***load in the league – why would he want to do it? And the way he did it, I just can’t understand,” Habib said.

“If we go and did an audit, and we saw Gateway (Hotel), Shell Club, you know he’d have a gambling problem … then you think, ‘There’s his problem; he’s a gambler, he just wanted the money’.

“To live your life, that’s what I can’t get.

“I still think about it to this day.”

QUESTIONS RAISED

Habib says North Geelong inadvertently allowing the club’s liquor licence to lapse was when they realised something was not right.

He says Caz Hearn, who had joined the Magpies’ executive as secretary, took on the responsibility of getting the licence renewed and made contact with Janssen.

“And Steven wouldn’t give (her) access to the bank accounts,” he recalled. “So, as president, I rang the bank, and they said, ‘we’ll give you access because you bank with us’.

“The next minute, it (transactions) all came onto the phone. I was flicking through it, and there was nothing.

“I rang PC (Cotter) first and said, “there’s nothing there, mate.”

Habib revealed he, Cotter and Hearn confronted Janssen over the missing money at a meeting between the four.

It followed nearly six weeks of examining the club’s financial transactions for the more than two-year period of his offending, with Hearn working around the clock following the trail of transactions.

“We had everything lined up when we had the first meeting with Steve at his house,” he said.

“Because I do a bit of mental health stuff, I said to PC, ‘I don’t know how much he’s taken, but we know he’s taken some. But, we’ve got to worry about his mental health side’. That’s the way I approached the first meeting.

“Before the first meeting, Caz did an audit, and then we presented it to him and asked questions.

“We thought we’d give him a week to come back and align everything we’ve asked – ‘where it’s highlighted, you give us answers in a week’.

“We came back in a week and there were no answers.”

POLICE INVOLVEMENT AND INFORMING THE CLUB

It was following the second meeting with Janssen that North Geelong took its concerns to the police.

“I think we had an obligation to our members (to take it to the police),” Habib said.

Cotter said: “If it’s a couple of grand, you try and sort it out.

“But, once it got to those sort of figures, there’s no way known you can do it because probably what half of this is about, it’s about all these other clubs that sweep it under the table, and someone else goes and does it somewhere else.”

Habib, Cotter and Hearn also had to tell the other members of the North Geelong executive of what they had discovered.

Sponsorship director Anthony Davis, who had devoted countless hours to attracting sponsorship dollars, was among those floored by the news.

“‘Davo’ (Davis), he just broke down because of the amount of work he does,” Habib said. “It’s hard work getting sponsors.

“He just crumbled.”

On March 10, the members wanted answers at an emotion-charged meeting at North Geelong’s Keith Barclay Oval base.

“The hardest thing about the whole thing was standing in front of 80-100 people,” Habib said.

“The first 20 minutes, it was like they were attacking us.”

THE EMOTIONAL TOLL

Having lost his father, brother-in-law and father-in-law in the previous 18 months, this situation was the last thing Habib needed.

“When Kelly (Habib’s partner) found me in the room in a ball bawling my eyes out, she knew there was something wrong,” he said.

“And that’s when I had to tell her because I’ve been through s*** myself.

“I’d been through hell, and he put me back in that hole for six weeks. I cried nearly every night.

“PC always said to me, ‘it’s not your fault’. But, I’m president. I’ve got the final decision; I’ve got to look over everything.

“At the start of that (club) meeting, they were all on me and telling me to step down.”

Habib, who has been president of North Geelong for a decade, did consider walking away.

“It was too much,” he said. “PC, Kelly, and Caz, especially, said ‘you’ve got to get through this. You’ll come out bigger and better – the whole club will.’

“And that’s why we wanted to go through the story, so hopefully other clubs will learn what we’ve done and how this will never happen at this club again.”

IMPROVED PROCESSES

Cotter, who has served as treasurer himself at Osborne Park, says the Magpies, through the work of Hearn, has improved processes in place to track the movement of money.

He says COVID has shifted the focus away from cash, which is harder to trace, to electronic transactions.

“I was treasurer for four years; I know how much cash goes through the place and goes out,” he said.

“People, you have to trust them because there is no other way you can do it.

“But you can put certain things in place. You’re not spying on them because it’s very hard for a volunteer to come in and go, ‘oh, you’re not going to trust me?’.

“How do you go up to a person that’s volunteering their time doing the treasurer’s job to then say, ‘we don’t trust you?’

“That’s the hardest part for any club – that the person doing it doesn’t feel trusted.

“For us, and for other clubs, it’s about putting things in place so it’s not about the treasurer, it’s about the process and the things in place that it’s just normal to do it this way.”

Former North Geelong coach Ayden George (left) with Magpies president Jason Habib. (krockfootball.com.au Image/Al Packer)

ON-FIELD IMPACT

It wasn’t only off-field where Janssen’s actions were impacting North Geelong.

Cotter says coach Ayden George, who stepped down at the end of the season, was impacted in his ability to retain and recruit players for the 2019 and 2021 seasons.

“We got outbid all the time,” he said. “We ran on a budget that was given to us, and I’m not going to be responsible as a football director to spend what we can’t afford.

“Realistically, we were running at not even 75 per cent of the salary cap compared to other clubs.

“So, how do you compete?”

Jannsen, a key driver of the North Geelong’s women’s program, suggested the club scale back its spending in that area.

“When he came back from Geelong (Cats), he didn’t want to put in the money to keep women’s footy going,” he said.

“At one stage, he said to me and PC we might have to shut it down.

“Why would a bloke who’s involved in women’s footy want to shut it down when we were the club who got it going?”

LESSONS FOR OTHERS

Habib couldn’t be more effusive in his praise for the work Hearn has done in the past eight months.

Cotter says the processes she has implemented should be a lesson for any community sports club.

“It’s about putting things in place that mitigate the risk but take it away, so it’s just a normal process and not a trust thing so the person that’s doing the job doesn’t feel like they’re not trusted, but there’s just things in place that you do as a club that they follow,” he said.

“That protects them as well.”

Twitter: @tom_king79