Sep 13, 2019

Universal Medicine 'cult' received hundreds of thousands in charity donations from prominent donors

Josh Robertson
ABC News
September 13, 2019

A Brisbane multi-millionaire who donated $300,000 to a charity associated with a group later found in court to be a "exploitative cult" has said he gave the money freely as a reward for treating his chronic pain.

But software business owner Stephen Ninnes got his cash back, after an Australian Tax Office (ATO) crackdown forced the College of Universal Medicine (COUM) to relinquish almost $600,000 in donations.

The COUM promotes the teachings of Universal Medicine's (UM) multi-millionaire founder Serge Benhayon — a former bankrupt tennis coach who claims to be Leonardo Da Vinci reincarnated.

Mr Ninnes said in hindsight, after damning findings by a New South Wales Supreme Court jury last year in a defamation case brought by Mr Benhayon, "without any shadow of a doubt, I would have nothing to do with it".

The COUM remains a registered charity, despite being stripped of tax-deductable gift registration by the ATO, which found it was not operating a "college" for tax purposes.

Other major donors to COUM include Neil Gamble, a prominent executive and former Sydney casino boss, who was once at the centre of the "cash-for-comment" scandal with radio broadcaster John Laws.
'They could have anything I bloody had'

Mr Ninnes said he first encountered UM practitioners at Olivia Newton-John's Gaia Retreat in Byron Bay in NSW in 2009.

"I went there and they had all these alternate therapies, and I went to every single one of them and the one that I received from this [UM] person actually made me feel better," Mr Ninnes said.

A spokesman said Gaia Retreat had never "endorsed or been associated with Universal Medicine" or formally showcased its practitioners.

Mr Ninnes said he felt his health improved after about four years of treatment by UM.

"I had made myself a little decision that if anyone could actually make me better, they could have anything I bloody had, because I was very sick," Mr Ninnes said.

Mr Ninnes' donation in 2013, made in the name of his business Maintenance Experts, was the largest to COUM, which told the ATO it was for a college building fund.

Mr Ninnes said he understood he was donating to "a charity … but I'm not too sure what it was".

In 2010, Mr Ninnes also sold the historic $1.75 million Ashby House for use as UM's Brisbane headquarters.

He had owned the 1860 property at Fairfield on Brisbane's southside for less than a year before selling it to Unimed Brisbane, a company half-owned by Mr Benhayon.

Months before the sale, UM emailed its followers appealing for "financial support … to fund the purchase … a sound investment with tax benefits".
'Indecent interest in girls as young as 10'

In his failed Supreme Court defamation claim against anti-cult activist Esther Rockett, Mr Benhayon gave evidence that UM followers had given $269,525 towards paying the mortgage.

The court heard UM was a $2 million-a-year business for Mr Benhayon, who had accumulated other multi-million-dollar properties and paid wages to his entire extended family.

It heard Mr Benhayon flies business class for annual retreats in Vietnam and twice-yearly vacations on a British country estate.

Mr Ninnes, who lives in a $4.1 million house on the Brisbane River, said he was never a devotee of UM, but a "client".

"I had no idea who they were and I've never really known too much about them," he said.

But Mr Ninnes said he was particularly disturbed by jury findings about Mr Benhayon.

The jury found Mr Benhayon was a "charlatan" who "swindles cancer patients", was "engaged in a healing fraud that harms people" and was "sexually manipulative of his cult followers".

It also found Mr Benhayon had "an indecent interest in girls as young as 10 whom he causes to stay at his house unaccompanied".

"I wouldn't be involved with anyone who's got any of those things against them," Mr Ninnes said.

When contacted by the ABC, Mr Benhayon hung up.

Unlike other COUM donors, Mr Ninnes never publicly promoted the group.

By contrast, Mr Gamble, who gave the "college" $50,000 and later funded and ran a UM promotional website, repeatedly praised Mr Benhayon before the court findings.

"How does he [Benhayon] find time to write such deep, rich philosophical books?" Mr Gamble said in one UM promotional video.

Mr Gamble came to prominence during the "cash-for-comment" scandal in 1999 when he was chief executive of Sydney's Star Casino.

An Australian Broadcasting Authority inquiry heard Mr Gamble was involved in a deal with radio host John Laws, who agreed not to disparage gambling while receiving $250,000 a year from the casino.

Online messages seen by the ABC show Mr Gamble in 2015 had urged a fellow UM devotee to publicly criticise media for reporting on UM.

"Such are the standards of journalism and the absence of media regulation in this country," Mr Gamble wrote.

Mr Gamble told the ABC he had "absolutely no comment" about the donation.

"All old stuff — go off and do your stuff, whatever you're going to do," he said.
'Safeguard of public money is threatened'

Documents filed in the defamation case detail the tax office action against COUM, which took $581,775 in donations for its "school building fund" between 2011 and 2015.

But then an ATO investigation found COUM was "not operating a school" because the courses it offered, such as "Being a woman in the world today", did not qualify as "knowledge-based teaching" for tax purposes.

It noted that COUM was fundraising to renovate a building to the "potential capital benefit" of its owner, Mr Benhayon, who would also earn $80,000 a year in rent.

Although there was no indication money was misspent, the ATO found most of the donations to the building fund were not maintained separately to COUM's money, meaning it could potentially use the cash "for other purposes" and "the safeguard of public money is threatened".

In February 2015, the ATO retrospectively stripped COUM's deductible gift recipient (DGR) status and COUM returned $563,282 to donors in October 2015.

Mr Ninnes said he had already cut ties with UM when he received an email about a refund.

"I handed it on to my accounts lady [and] I took the money back," he said.
'Cult that has caused the separation of families'

The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) continues to endorse COUM as a registered charity.

An ACNC spokesman said it could not comment on individual charities but "all registered charities must remain not-for-profit [and] have solely charitable purposes".

"The ACNC takes all concerns seriously and will investigate where there is evidence that a charity has failed to comply with its obligations," he said.

Lismore MP Janelle Saffin denounced UM in NSW Parliament last month and called for a judicial inquiry into its "infiltration" of government departments.

"It is a cult that has caused the separation of families, is a wealthy commercial enterprise … and has targeted those who speak out," Ms Saffin said.

"Those who have escaped its clutches, or had their loved ones snared in its web of commerce and bizarre beliefs, have told me of its practices and harm."

UM devotees include medical practitioners, academics, child protection workers, and a police officer.

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