Starting in 2008, Jeff Morris worked with two colleagues to try to bring the issues at Commonwealth Financial Planning (CFPL) to light. Eventually, he was left there to fight on alone.
“One of them left, at the end of 2009,” Morris says. “He just couldn’t take the pressure any more. He’d been interrogated by [CBA] group security and I think he found that very tough, the interview he had. Emotionally it takes a lot out of you, so at the end of 2009 he left.
“It was Christmas ’09 that he left. I don’t know if there’s any relationship, but he died six months later, in his sleep. He was 35. His wife had just had a little baby – 16 days old. I honestly do not know if the strain I saw him go through had any bearing on it. I think there must have been an underlying issue there, but that sort of stress doesn’t help these things.
“But this fellow, he gave his all. Finally, we couldn’t get ASIC moving any other way, [so] by February 2010 we went in and saw them. He went with me. That was a few months before he died, after he’d left the bank.”
“The other fellow, the third guy, hung in for years but eventually said he just couldn’t work there any more.”
Isolated and deceived
Morris and his colleagues first realised they would have to stand up against CBA after it became obvious that clients wronged by CFPL would be isolated and deceived and made to fight to state their case and win compensation.
“I went home that night and I was sitting on my sofa in the lounge room – I had a fire going and a glass of scotch – and I was just sitting there thinking about all of this. And I’m thinking I didn’t need all this,” Morris says.
“My mother-in-law was staying that night, and she came up and said, there’s something troubling you. And I said, there is: I took this little job, just for a quiet life, so I could spend time with my family. A little job in the suburbs, and I’ve now had this thing drop in my lap that I’m going to have to act on, and it will be the biggest thing I’ve ever done. I’m going to have to take on the Commonwealth Bank. It’s not going to be easy. But if I don’t do it, hundreds of innocent people will have their lives destroyed.
“And she said immediately: ‘You’re equal to it’. This comment, from somebody who’d known me for 25 years, really left me no way out. I said I know I am, but it’s not going to be easy.
“So that was it. I knew. I knew I had to do it. I’ve been around long enough that I knew what was involved and what was going to happen. It’s the biggest institution in the country. I wasn’t absolutely sure if I was going to win or even survive the whole thing. I thought I could have been crushed like a bug. And I nearly was.”
Not a typical planner
Morris says he is not your typical financial planner, and “certainly not a typical bank financial planner”. He is an economics and law graduate, who started his career as a tax consultant before becoming corporate tax manager with NatWest Bank in Australia at the age of 26. At 30 he moved to Bankers Trust where he became a vice president responsible for running the bank’s remuneration.
“At BT I had the privilege of working with giants,” he says. “The managers at CBA … were not giants.”
From CBA’s point of view, Morris says he was “the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time”.
“From my point of view I was the right guy, right place, right time,” he says.
“I took it on with that sober knowledge of what was involved, and what it would cost me. And even then I under-rated what would get thrown at me and what it would cost me.
“But I also knew I didn’t have a choice, and I knew the price of not doing anything, of walking away, would have been higher, in that I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. So you don’t really have a choice. It was an automatic thing, but I went into it with my eyes open.”
Morris says there was a clear sense of isolation as the months and years passed.
“It had a terrible impact on my family, my wife and my kids,” he says.
“It was made far worse than it had to be, because the regulator was absolutely useless. As well as the knowledge that if you take on a powerful institution you can be crushed; as well as that knowledge there’s the fact that the regulator didn’t do anything. There was that frustration. Is anything happening? Are we doing all this for nothing?”
Guilty treated more generously
What clearly still puzzles Morris is that CBA has “treated the guilty bloke far more generously than they treated the whistleblowers”.
“I think they actually have sympathy for him. It seems they feel he was the unlucky bloke who was dobbed in,” he says.
“It was very inconvenient that someone rocked the boat and caused all these problems. I’m sure I’m seen as being the problem, not him, as I’m the one who brought the problems to light.
“As a whistleblower, you constantly have the opportunity to give up and walk away, to decide that you’ve done enough. Looking back now I’m so glad I didn’t. It took literally years of prodding to get ASIC moving, and even then they bungled it.
“After I left CBA I blew the whistle on ASIC’s incompetence in June 2013 as my experience had convinced me that they were actually the biggest problem. The Senate Inquiry into ASIC received a record 468 submissions and is about to release its findings and I am hopeful that some lasting good will result. After six years I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have done all I can.”
Read the full story about the role of whistleblowers in the financial system in the July 2014 edition of Professional Planner – out now.