Some time in 2018, or maybe 2019, a new charity sprang up on the South Coast.
Founding members pitched to the local council about the good work they planned to do, putting up the homeless in refurbished buses and decommissioned train carriages.
Any buses still in working order would be used as community transport, as well as providing accommodation; the members anticipated a fleet of 170 buses and 150 train carriages, 30 of which would be operational by the end of the year.
It was perfect timing; the Shoalhaven was tackling an explosion in homelessness, which would only increase over the next several years as bushfires, floods and the housing crisis took their toll on the region.
Three years later, the charity, My Best Life Australia, has managed to refurbish a single bus, but its connection with a disgraced accountant is what has raised alarm bells along the South Coast.
He probably thinks people have short memories, but I don't. In no uncertain terms, steer clear of him.
My Best Life Australia was registered with the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission (ACNC) in 2019, although its website claims it began to operate in 2018.
My Best Life Australia charity turns over about $5000 a year, according to the annual reports it must lodge with ACNC.
Other local charities know little about its operations, and have not been able to contact it to refer clients.
Former volunteers say they left after becoming concerned the charity didn't seem to have any clear aims or projects, rather, it seemed to stumble from one hastily-conceived idea to another.
Another requirement of registration with the ACNC is the nomination of "Responsible Persons".
Responsible Persons are required by the ACNC to act with reasonable care and diligence, act honestly and fairly in the best interests of the charity and for its charitable purposes, not misuse their position or information they gain as a Responsible Person, disclose actual or potential conflicts of interest, ensure that the financial affairs of the charity are managed responsibly, and not allow the charity to operate while it is insolvent.
My Best Life Australia names several south coast residents, including business owners, as its responsible persons.
Not mentioned is Blake Richards, a controversial former South Coast accountant.
Mr Richards is identified as CEO on My Best Life Australia's social media, and associates himself with the charity on LinkedIn.
On leaked internal emails from late 2021 he identifies himself as CEO to volunteers with the charity; he also says he has the cash raised from a Bunnings barbecue fundraiser.
Newsletters on My Best Life Australia's website begin with the words "a message from Blake".
Director of the charity, Nilesh Nair, initially pointed the Illawarra Mercury to speak with Mr Richards when approached about a story on the charity.
He later denied Mr Richards had any role with the organisation beyond that of an ordinary volunteer.
"I believe it was around COVID he stepped away from any official role; he's got zero involvement with our organisation around money, he just cleans and does repair work," Mr Nair said.
In 2008, Blake Richards left the small seaside town of Ulladulla, after he spent years spruiking his real estate development company Longbeach Lifestyle to locals.
Longbeach ultimately attracted 23 investors, many of them elderly, all of whom lost their money when the company collapsed in July 2005, owing creditors $3 million.
In April of 2008 the National Institute of Accountants released a statement announcing it was suspending him as a member, pending an investigation into allegations of fraud, poorly constructed investment advice and failure to tell clients they were investing in related entities of the accountant.
After that investigation he was banned for life but the findings were not made public.
My past is not relevant - it's not just me involved in the charity, and the charity is about helping people.
ASIC banned him from being a director of any company for four years from 2009, by reason of his directorship of four failed companies, including those associated with the Longbeach development.
He was found to have failed to act with care and diligence, to have acted with a lack of commercial morality in relation to tax debts associated with Longbeach, and to have failed to keep proper books and records.
He appealed the ban in 2012, but was unsuccessful.
He then disappeared from the public eye before resurfacing in 2019, associated with the charity My Best Life Australia, appearing with the board members at a Shoalhaven City Council homelessness taskforce meeting.
There is no suggestion that board members were aware of Mr Richards' past or have any similar history themselves.
His LinkedIn page says he draws inspiration from his mum's charity work - she's a well-respected OAM recipient, who has donated countless hours to her community.
Previous victims say coasting off his mum's good reputation is par for the course for Mr Richards.
Gary Moss "lost everything" after he followed Mr Richards' financial advice.
Mr Moss was in the NSW Ambulance for 25 years.
For almost 20 years, Mr Richards was his accountant.
"I thought he was a church-going, legitimate person," he said.
"His parents are a wonderful couple, and he's taken advantage of their name because they're so well-respected in Ulladulla. He's basically cashed in on it.
"He probably thinks people have short memories, but I don't. In no uncertain terms, steer clear of him."
While there is no evidence of any financial irregularity involving My Best Life Australia, it does operate in a bizarre and haphazard manner.
Potential volunteers are given a list of programs My Best Life Australia is allegedly involved in - one is a domestic violence hotline called Speak Out.
There is no domestic violence hotline called Speak Out.
The charity's website has a 'Here to Help You Now' section, which refers those in need to contact Beyond Blue, the Domestic Violence Line, Lifeline or Men's Line.
There is a campaign called Speak Out, an initiative of the Department of Communities and Justice, which promotes the Domestic Violence Hotline.
A spokesperson for the department said they were not affiliated with My Best Life Australia in any way.
A charity which supports women on the south coast says it was approached by a My Best Life volunteer to collaborate on a project; it later found the volunteer had been charged with assault.
According to documents seen by the Illawarra Mercury, a volunteer brought to Mr Richards' attention that another volunteer had been charged with rape, and had pleaded guilty to sexual assault.
Mr Richards responded: "we do request police checks, but being a volunteer organisation, sometimes things do fall through the cracks".
A source who works in the volunteer sector described the response as "utterly unacceptable".
"Police checks are there for a reason," they said.
"They are not onerous and they should never fall through the cracks.
"To disregard them like this is to hold volunteer and staff safety in contempt.
"Volunteer organisations should, and the reputable ones do, hold all staff and volunteers to the highest standards."
My Best Life Australia is registered to what appears to be a residential block in Bomaderry.
The charity does not list a contact phone number or email address on its website, although people seeking to volunteer or in need of help are invited to complete a form.
Mr Nair said the charity is keen to expand and partner with other organisations along the coast of NSW.
There is a link to make a direct cash donation to the charity.
They also run Bunnings barbecues, and the Illawarra Mercury has seen documentation revealing the organisation has applied for a government grant of up to $60,000.
The total number of grant applications made by the charity, or if any have been successful, is unknown.
In an interview, Mr Richards confirmed the charity had applied for grants, and intended to run more Bunnings barbecue fundraisers.
He spoke at length about projects the charity had "in the pipeline", but acknowledged he did find its limited achievements so far "frustrating".
"There is a lot going on behind the scenes, but maybe I've been spreading myself a little too thin," he said.
"There are lengthy procedures involved with councils and a relatively high volunteer turnover as peoples' lives change through COVID."
When asked if he should have any responsibility for the charity's money, given his past, Mr Richards denied the charity had asked for any money - despite minutes earlier saying he had applied for grants and had a fundraising barbecue coming up.
"My past is not relevant - it's not just me involved in the charity, and the charity is about helping people," he said.
"I'm the main driver, I've been supporting the charity financially. We are not asking for donations."
When he was asked whether he thought the charity should be more transparent about his past, he ended the phone call.
Director Mr Nair said he was "not interested" in Mr Richards' past: "I really can't comment on what he's done in the past.
"He stepped down from a CEO role because of people being negative about his past and being negative towards him.
"How does he move forward if people keep pointing the finger at him?
"He goes through the same government checks as anyone else - if he passes those checks, why does it matter?"
Know more? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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