A charity king was a pin-up for celebrities until his inability to manage his finances and refusal to open his accounts drove many away, write Kelly Burke, Debra Jopson and Erik Jensen.
For years, he has been Sydney's nice guy, almost too good to be true.
"Only selfless service can encourage a person to reach the higher state of humanity," his charitable foundation's website declares.
He goes by the names Jeff Gambin, Geoff Gambin, Javert Gambin and Javert Herbert Gambin and, according to Australian Securities and Investments Commission records, was born in 1948 in Calcutta and Tibet.
His reported claims to fame are many: an entomology degree from Cambridge University, one-time ownership of a chain of 18 restaurants, a qualified gourmet chef with Parisian awards, holder of a commercial pilot's licence, a black belt in karate and possessor of a $7.5 million fortune that has been lavished on the homeless.
However, it was Gambin's invention of a charity to feed Sydney's homeless 15 years ago, inspired after reportedly being given a blanket on a cold, windy night by a homeless man on a park bench, that conferred on him a public image nearing sainthood, attracting stars of the screen, the corporate world and the media as money-pullers and volunteers.
Until this week.
At 9am on Thursday, investigators from the Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing tried in vain to seize financial documents from the building at Rozelle that was donated so his foundation could have a kitchen from which to feed the poor. Lawyers for the foundation, appointed the night before, were given a further two weeks to produce records from Gambin's Just Enough Faith Foundation and a sister company of the same name set up by Packer family interests to assist him.
A week ago, Gambin was photographed by a newspaper playing pokies in the Balmain Leagues Club, where, as bank statements seen by the Herald show, between June 2005 and July 2007, he withdrew almost $150,000 of the foundation's money at the club's ATM.
The pattern of the bank account's transactions shows a disturbing regularity. Several afternoons each week $800 in cash would be withdrawn from the club's ATM. About two hours later, a further $200 would be withdrawn. Occasionally the pattern would change, with $500 being the initial amount withdrawn, followed 90 minutes to two hours later by another $500.
A liquor store, a beauty salon and the rates on a Gold Coast flat owned by Gambin and his wife appeared to have been paid from the charity's account, which is littered with multiple dishonour fees from cheques written for as much as $40,000. There were also many fund transfers of thousands of dollars each into at least three different credit cards.
Confronted by Channel Nine on Monday, Gambin said he had put only about a tenth of the account's funds into the pokies. He met clients and donors in the club and often he would hand out cash directly to those in need, without receipts, he said.
By Thursday night a public relations firm was helping him out, but yesterday he was still declining to answer an extensive list of questions put to him by the Herald.
Was this the charismatic entrepreneur revered on the church, school and Rotary Club speaking circuit, who wooed the Packer media executive John Alexander to roll up his sleeves and dish out hot meals alongside him, and who with his wife Alina, according to his foundation website, spent $7.5 million of his own money on helping the homeless?
Was this the same man who in 1996 claimed: "I've won several cocktail and chef awards in my time - both here and in Paris and Chicago. In fact you can say I'm credited with having invented the now-famous Blue Lagoon cocktail in 1972"?
Or who said in 2005: "I had a resort-style home, a Mercedes, a motor lodge cruiser, everything"?
Many have been helped by the man's good works. But many have also been burnt by his grand schemes gone awry. Fearing damage to the cause of aiding the poor, all have held their tongues until now.
Hidden truths have begun to tumble out about the dark side of Gambin's grandiose gestures. Perhaps most burnt of all are the volunteers who became bewildered, then disenchanted, over Gambin's cavalier attitude to accounting.
"Jeff insisted there was absolutely no money and I kept wondering how could a charity operate on such a shoestring," says Alan Byrne, former member of Friends of Just Enough Faith, a committee whose members have blown the whistle.
After seven years of feeding the homeless every Friday night and raising more than $120,000 for the charity, in January last year John Oliver, a retired investment banker with Babcock & Brown, decided to walk away.
"I was just concerned about the lack of governance and financial transparency out there. And there were rumours of Jeff having some sort of a gambling problem. People said that they'd seen him gambling, but it was just their word against Jeff's."
Oliver says that by the end of 2006, he and his fellow volunteers had been reduced to buying pigs' cheeks for 50 cents a kilogram to keep the food program going. "Once the money ran out the food deteriorated quickly. All we had was fatty rubbish, the food was absolutely dreadful and we struggled in the kitchen to make suitable quality."
In 2004, Gambin had told Qantas's inflight magazine: "I give them lobster, duck a l'orange, quail, prawns … what we try to do is ease the pain."
About the same time, a group of well-heeled corporate identities realised there was a need to ease the foundation's book-keeping pain. A separate company, Just Enough Faith Foundation Limited, which emanated out of the Packer family's Publishing and Broadcasting Limited headquarters in Park Street, was set up with the aim of raising funds "for the distribution to Just Enough Faith registered charity", according to its 2005 financial report.
Its directors included Gretel Packer, the Wizard Home Loans founder Mark Bouris, and Alexander. Its big fund-raiser was a $2000-a-ticket shindig for the premiere of the Russell Crowe movie Cinderella Man, with the full support of the star. It raised $1.4 million, which was apportioned to the charity in monthly instalments over the next 12 months. The Packer interests also provided the charity with an accountant who was on the PBL payroll to help with the chaotic book-keeping.
But not even the accountant was able to access the accounts, controlled by Gambin and his wife. When the charity failed to provide the paperwork, Park Street cut the money flow. The company was deregistered in December. "I think when PBL and Russell Crowe got involved, it just went to his head," Byrne says.
Since October 2005, the Park Street interests alone have donated almost $1.8 million into a charity that cost just $300,000 a year to run efficiently, according to Friends of Just Enough Faith committee members. Yet the charity appeared to be broke.
Gambin appears to have lived by the poet Browning's thought: "A man's reach should exceed his grasp."
Oliver says: "He was always prone to exaggeration … embellishing how much he did … Quite often he'd tell people he was feeding 600 to 700 people a night … there were seldom as many as 300 people."
In 1999, Gambin reportedly offered $6 million for Notre Dame, the 42-hectare castle estate with a private zoo at Mulgoa, before pulling out of the sale. Byrne recalls him talking about establishing an Olympics for homeless people, then becoming fixated with the idea of establishing a rural airline to reach drought-ravaged farmers.
"It was very frustrating, because we were just trying to make sure a simple service which fed 150 homeless people a night was not going to go under," Byrne says.
In southern NSW, Gambin has become a local hero over the past year.
"He's been wonderful to our town," says the licensee of the Deniliquin's Exchange Hotel, David Rogers, who is still owed hundreds of dollars from a farmers' social function Gambin organised in the pub last month.
"The money is nothing at all," Rogers says.
In February, Gambin planned an ambitious morale-boosting event for farmers. Griffith and Conargo shire councils needed little persuasion to help; Gambin had put together an extraordinary list of celebrities he claimed had volunteered for his Australia's Biggest Ever Bloke's Day Out.
On the program - advertised in press releases from both councils - were Kostya Tszyu, Wayne Gardiner, Ron Barassi, Glenn McGrath, Mark "Bomber" Thomson, Paul Vautin, Craig Parry, Paul Harrogan, the entire Holden and Ford racing teams, the Sydney Swans, Vince Sorrenti and James Morrison. More than 3000 men, many brought in by bus from hundreds of kilometres away, converged on remote Pretty Pine, 18 kilometres north-west of Deniliquin.
Brad George, a Deniliquin radio announcer who had promoted Gambin's event on his radio program, recalls: "There wasn't too much happening, I can tell you.
"Don't get me wrong. The food was all free, the blokes had a good day, but everyone was asking 'where's Kostya Tszyu?"' In Russia, as it turns out. Of all the celebrities Gambin had promised, just two - Gardiner and Sorrenti - showed up.
George confronted Gambin. "He was evasive … and just kept walking."
The general manager of Conargo Shire Council, Barry Barlow, says: "So a couple of names didn't appear on the day … but Jeff provided two tonnes of sausages and 600 kilos of onions. All we saw was smiles on people's faces and slaps on the back saying what a tremendous success the day was."
Is this man crooked or just plain eccentric and the world's worst bookkeeper? Channel Nine asked earlier this week.
Where had the Packer millions gone? "On all this," Gambin replied, as the camera panned around the interior of a new Rozelle dental and medical centre, destined to treat 28,000 patients a year, the program said.
Gambin expressed fears the centre would not open this week because of the bad publicity. But, according to five of the tradesmen who built the centre and who spoke to the Herald this week, it was finished months ago - and came in at almost zero cost to the foundation, because materials and labour worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were all donated.
The centre has been waiting for its first patient for months, says Byrne, who estimates he has ploughed more than $60,000 of his company's money into the centre's construction. Despite the dental crisis for Sydney's poor, its doors remain closed.
Transparency has been the missing element in Gambin's life mission, seeing that it involves a tax-free charity and the use of public funds, says Doug Ferris, a community affairs consultant who has worked with him in western Sydney.
"He needs to separate the private money for the business from the money for the charities, because it is not clear [which is which]. People could think it is the private money going in there [to his business or the poker machines]," Ferris says.
"He has never faced that. He allows his magnanimous gestures to overcome that. He keeps cycling through people."
On Sydney's south-west fringe there is still bad blood between Gambin and Minto real estate residents because of his handling of a slice of former Department of Housing land, according to Ferris.
Gambin's charity obtained the land in December 2001 for $1 to hold in trust for the residents to create their dream of a children's community park. But Gambin failed to sign a document drawn up pro bono by Blake Dawson Waldren. In May 2004, the foundation mortgaged the land for $350,000, unbeknown to the children's park group.
The foundation defaulted on the mortgage and Campbelltown Council stepped in and bought the land for $350,000 to ensure the park went ahead.
Ferris says even though the charity had to pay rates and land tax, it made a good profit, leaving some children's park organisers livid. Ferris tried to help Gambin's organisation to become more professional and accountable. "I offered my help. But I wasn't able to. He just wanted to control things. I just walked away."
It took Gambin five years and a legal fight to agree to pay outstanding rent on a Berala property he leased from an elderly woman under a residential tenancy agreement he signed in March 2000. He finally paid in January this year, after failing to comply with a court order, sending a cheque that was dishonoured and taking defamation action against the debt collector.
Late yesterday, a spokeswoman from the board of trustees said the foundation would be unable to comment on the events of the past week until it received legal and accountancy advice. Gambin had told Channel Nine earlier in the week: "I regret it. If I had to spend more time on book-keeping, I would have spent less time on what I do best."
After seven years of volunteering and fund-raising for the foundation, Oliver says that like many other volunteers, he feels more frustrated than angry that it has come to this.
"We've met some wonderful people and have helped a lot of people out. But if the funds had been used effectively, we could have achieved so much more," he says.
"If [the foundation] doesn't continue, we just hope another organisation can step in and use the facilities."
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