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THE GIVEAWAY MAN; Philanthropist gave away a fortune; but won’t forget or forgive a grudge; Wrath of an Irish enigma

Resource type: News

The Gold Coast Bulletin |

A new book reveals how Mayor Ron Clarke fell out with a wealthy benefactor. Sue Lappeman reports. A NEW book has revealed how Gold Coast Mayor Ron Clarke blew his friendship with a secretive billionaire American philanthropist who bankrolled the Couran Cove and Runaway Bay sport centre developments. The Billionaire Who Wasn’t – How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away A Fortune by Irish journalist Conor O’Clery details how Cr Clarke tried to sue Chuck Feeney who has given more than $228 million to Australian universities and research institutes – $155 million of it in Queensland. Feeney, a renowned sports fan now recognised as Australia’s biggest ever philanthropist, had proposed the Runaway Bay Super Sports Centre to help local youths and athletics with any profit made to go to building more sports facilities and the Children in Need charity. But the fallout from a defamation action launched by Clarke against the ABC in 2001 concerning the centre ended with the destruction of their friendship. The book was written with the co-operation of Feeney who promotes it on the website of his massive Bermuda-based charity foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies. There are many misconceptions about Charles F. Feeney, who was born into a struggling Irish-American family in 1931 in New Jersey – one being that he re-mains a self-made billionaire. He certainly did create his own wealth in a classic rags-to-riches way through Duty Free Shoppers, an international empire he co-founded. But while Forbes magazine throughout the 1980s and 1990s had him near the top of its list of the 400 richest Americans, Feeney had already secretly divested himself of all his fortune and was no longer a billionaire. Instead, his Atlantic Philanthropies foundation had been making massive donations to worthy causes throughout the world since 1982 on the condition no one revealed Feeney’s contribution. It is estimated he put between $4 and $8 billion into the foundation, his share of the sale of DFS to Louis Vuitton. Another misconception is that Feeney is a recluse. He is actually widely described as a sociable, mild-mannered man who just does not like publicity. He is frugal, wearing a $15 watch and travelling by bus or economy class, and does not own a home or a car. Instead he lives with his wife Helga in small units rented for him throughout the world by InterPacific Resorts, which owns Couran Cove and the Runaway Bay sports centre and is itself owned by Atlantic Philanthropies. One of his modest homes is a unit on Brisbane’s riverside where he has spent three months a year since 1993 when his best friend, Australian tennis great Ken Fletcher, returned to live in his home town. Estimated to have given away $4 billion in the past 25 years, Feeney soon be-gan making anonymous donations of tens of millions of dollars to Brisbane institutions on the advice of Fletcher. A bitter stoush with his former DFS partners eventually saw him outed as an anonymous philanthropist and he decided it was time to publicly push his message of ‘giving while living’ in the hope of encouraging other wealthy people to also donate. The Atlantic Philanthropies website now publishes its grants, but only those made since 2001. Donations before that remain private but it is estimated Australian institutions received tens of millions of dollars before 2001 and more than $228 mil-lion since, not including the $30 million Runaway Bay Super Sports Centre. ”He virtually built the whole of Runaway Bay Sports Super Centre as a donation to the city,” said Clarke once. ‘ ”When I kept telling people about that great donation of virtually $30 mil-lion to the community, the councillors couldn’t believe it. They thought there must have been some trap there.” His donations in Queensland largely began after former Brisbane mayor Jim Soorley arranged for Feeney and Fletcher to meet University of Queensland vice chancellor Professor John Hay and Queensland Institute of Medical Research Professor Laurie Powell at the Brisbane Irish Club in 1997. Feeney’s model was to put up a third of the cost of a project on condition the institution and the government fund a third each. In one project, he put up the first $20 million for a new world class Cancer Research Centre at the QIMR with $28 million coming from the State Government and $20 million from the Commonwealth. When another $5 million was needed, he recommended the naming rights be sold. Former Toowoomba mayor and property developer Clive Berghofer came to the party, donating $5 million over 5 years and to this day his name is displayed prominently over the building at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital. Ron Clarke met Feeney in the early ’90s when the former champion athlete was running a sports club in London that InterPacific was interested in buying. Feeney was impressed by Clarke’s athletic achievements and sporting connec-tions and they developed a close association. InterPacific had bought part of South Stradbroke Island in 1989 as a potential site for a Club Med-style resort, but it was soon determined it was not suitable. The property was left alone until Ron Clarke visited the island on a trip home to Australia in 1994. He returned to London enthralled with its potential and persuaded Feeney to let him develop an eco-resort there for InterPacific. According to his biography, Feeney gave Clarke carte blanche despite the concerns of his company directors and a warning from Jim Soorley who reportedly said, ”don’t go there, you will lose your a***”. According to the O’Clery book, Clarke took off like a ‘solo runner’ and began the development without providing a proper business plan. The cost of the development, originally estimated at $30 million soon skyrocketed and by its completion in 1998 was $185 million, one of the most expensive holiday resorts ever built in the world. The book claims the resort never made money and returned losses year after year. In May 2006, 100 permanent and casual staff were laid off and in May, 2007, the resort was put up for sale. According to the book, Ken Fletcher was beginning to bitterly resent Clarke’s intrusion into his territory. He was scathing about the cost of Couran Cove and angry Clarke was being credited with helping Feeney decide where his donations should go. Feeney then charged Clarke with overseeing the construction of what would become the Runaway Bay Super Sports Centre. Feeney stipulated the profits from the centre would be shared with the Gold Coast City Council for more sports facilities and the Children in Need charity. Its construction costs also increased from the proposed $10 million to $30 million. After its completion, Clarke returned to Melbourne to set up the Council for the Encouragement of Philanthropy in Australia with a $7.5 million grant from Atlantic Philanthropies. Feathers were ruffled when a story appeared in a Melbourne newspaper in 2001 referring wrongly to Clarke as a representative of the Atlantic Foundation. With Feeney’s donations and connection to the foundation still secret, the article claimed Clarke had helped raise $163 million in ‘anonymous’ donations for a variety of Australian projects. Feeney’s associates suspected Clarke was the source of the claim, a claim he strenuously denied. Another article a year later in The Sunday Mail reported that when Feeney wanted advice on where to donate his money, Clarke was his ‘eyes and ears’, which would have come as a great surprise to Ken Fletcher. But it was a lawsuit over the Runaway Bay centre that finally ended the relationship between the runner and the philanthropist. Clarke had wanted to sue the ABC after a 7.30 Report story wrongly claimed he had built the Sports Super Centre on the site of a toxic waste dump. When InterPacific lawyers advised against a lawsuit, Clarke started legal action in Melbourne where he and his former company, Runaway Bay Centre Pty Ltd, were eventually awarded more than $1 million, the biggest defamation award ever granted in Victoria. The ABC appealed and in 2003 the case was settled out of court for a lesser sum with Clarke getting $405,000 and the centre getting $81,000. Feeney insisted the damages awarded be held by the Sports Centre but Clarke then initiated another legal action to establish his right to the compensation. On Feeney’s advice, the suit was settled privately. Clarke said he made certain all the cash received went to charity, but it was the end of their relationship. Atlantic Philanthropies stopped funding CEPA, which had attracted donations of only $1 million a year. Feeney once said: ”I’m Irish, I hold a grudge to the end.” When Ken Fletcher died of cancer in 2006, Feeney honoured his friend by giving his first ever television interview to the ABC’s Australian Story. In October, 2006, Feeney made a rare public appearance at the opening of UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, built with $22.5 million from Atlantic Philanthropies. His only comment about the accolades being lavished upon him: ”Only my mother from Fermanagh would believe it.” A small sampler of one man s largesse Grantee Projects Amount Year University of Queensland …. Institute for Bio-Engineering and Nanotechnology …. $17AU,500,000 ….2001 University of Queensland ….Mayne Hall Gallery Renovation ….$5AU,000,000 …. 2001 University of Queensland …. Attracting Bright Minds to New Biologies ….$2AU,235,000 ….2001 Royal Children s Hospital Foundation ….Royal Children s Hospital International ….$1AU,200,000 …. 2001 Queensland University of Technology …Institute of Health Sciences ….$22AU,500,000 ….2001 CEPA Trust ….The CEPA Seed Trust ….$2AU,000,000 …. 2001 CEPA Trust ….The CEPA General Support ….$2AU,500,000 ….2001 CEPA Trust ….The Initial Operating Expenses ….$204,502 …. 2001 Royal Children s Hospital Foundation ….Construction of a Facility to Improve the Science of Child Health Care in Australia and the Region ….$25AU,000,000 ….2002 Queensland University of Technology ..National Centre of Philanthropy and Non-Profit Studies ….$750AU,000 …. 2002 Queensland University of Technology ..Asia-Pacific Academic Consortium for Public Health …. $701AU,000 ….2002 Queensland Institute of Medical Research ..Cell-Based Cancer Therapy Centre ….$3AU,425,500 …. 2002 Philanthropy Australia ….Joining the Community of Grantmakers in Australia ….$75AU,000 ….2002 Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research ….Upgrading and Modification of Research Facilities ….$7AU,900,000 …. 2002 CEPA Trust, ….The Seed Grant Support …. ….$2AU,500,000 ….2002 Menzies Research Institute ….Construction of a new Research Facility ….$7AU,500,000 …. 2003 University of Queensland …. Queensland Brain Institute ….$20AU,000,000 ….2004 Wesley Research Institute …. ….Clinical Trials Centre and Tissue Bank En-dowment….$10AU,000,000 …. 2005 Queensland University of Technology …Centre for Physical Activity, Health and Clinical Education ….$20AU,000,000 ….2005 University of Queensland ….Clinical Research Centre….$20AU,000,000 …. 2005 Queensland Institute of Medical Research …. Clinical Research ….AUD6,000,000 ….2006 Royal Brisbane Hospital ….Stroke Centre ….AUD500,000 …. 2006 Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research ….WEHI Extension ….AUD30,000,000 ….2006 Royal Brisbane Hospital ….RBH Stroke Unit …. …. AUD 1,000,000 …. 2006 Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute …. Research Building ….AUD20,000,000 ….2006

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