18 August 2023

Timeline: How the Wagga public housing scandal unfolded

| Oliver Jacques
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Richard Foley with unpaid stamp

Plasterer Richard Foley is one of six subcontractors who have told Region they are still owed money on the Spring Street project. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

As a tradie, you would think getting a government contract job to build government housing would be as safe as houses. Think again.

At least six subcontractors are still owed tens of thousands of dollars for work they did to build the now complete $1.5 million public housing block at 16 Spring Street, Wagga, in 2021.

Problems began when the NSW Government’s Land and Housing Corporation (LAHC) chose an already insolvent company – Matrix Group Co – as the main contractor to construct the dwelling.

READ MORE NSW Government department chose insolvent company to build Wagga public housing

Later, LAHC apparently failed to see a public online notice revealing Matrix Group Co lost its building insurance, and somehow also missed another public online notice indicating Matrix Group Co was in liquidation – continuing their contract with the Sydney-based construction company after both of these events.

Subcontractors Oasis Scaffolding and Bricklaying ($90,000), Wagga’s AC Electrics ($64,000), Plaster Pros Wagga ($55,000), New-Crete Concreting ($28,000), Wagga Glass and Aluminium ($42,000) and JMooney Roofing ($54,000) have also told Region they are still owed large sums of money on the Wagga LAHC project, two years after the dwelling was built.

So how did it all happen? Below is a timeline revealing all LAHC’s errors and red flags ignored, as uncovered by Region‘s ongoing investigation.

1 July 2020 – Matrix is insolvent

Documents obtained by Region indicate Matrix Group Co was insolvent at least since this date, with financial checks revealing the company was more than half a million dollars in the red.

12 February 2021 – LAHC chooses Matrix for Wagga project

Apparently unaware of its insolvency, LAHC announces Matrix Group Co as its principal contractor to build the $1.5 million Spring Street housing. The media release publicising this decision has since been deleted from the LAHC website but was retrieved by Region using the Internet Wayback machine.

31 March 2021 – Matrix loses building insurance

NSW Government insurer icare strips Matrix Group Co of its eligibility to have building insurance. NSW Fair Trading therefore imposes a restriction on the company’s building licence, preventing them from accepting contracts worth more than $20,000 (and thus requiring insurance). LAHC appears to have not noticed this happened, even though the information was posted online and visible to the general public. LAHC continues its $1.5 million contract with Matrix for another eight months.

30 August 2021 – Matrix meets with liquidator

A letter seen by Region revealed Matrix Group Co director Troy Loh first meets with a liquidator to discuss going into voluntary administration. LAHC claims it did not know about this meeting.

August to October 2021 – LAHC ignores subcontractor warnings

Subcontractors employed by Matrix to build the Spring Street dwelling send a number of emails to LAHC complaining that Matrix hasn’t been paying them. Nevertheless, LAHC keeps paying Matrix throughout these three months and refused to pay the subcontractors directly.

READ ALSO Tradies fight back after receiving demands for payment to ‘fix NSW Government’s mistake’

September 2021 – Matrix boss nominated for industry award

The Master Builders Association of NSW nominates Troy Loh as young builder of the month for September 2021.

29 October 2021 – Matrix goes into liquidation

The Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) publishes a notice on its website stating Matrix Group Co was in liquidation, leaving dozens of tradies across the state unpaid for various projects. Region found this notice and confirmed it had been visible online to the general public since that date, but LAHC indicated it was unaware of it.

5 November 2021 – LAHC boss defends paying Matrix

LAHC chief executive Michael Cassel defends his department’s decision to continue to pay Matrix, at a NSW parliamentary hearing.

“You cannot just not pay somebody because somebody has made a phone call to us and said, ‘He hasn’t paid me’,” he told the hearing.

21 November 2021 – LAHC finally realises Matrix is in liquidation

LAHC claims this was the date it was first made aware that Matrix Group had gone into liquidation, when it received correspondence from the liquidator, Westburn Advisory.

Region asked LAHC why it failed to see the ASIC public notice on Matrix Group Co’s liquidation posted online almost four weeks earlier, but the department refused to answer.

June 2022 – 16 Spring St units completed

The public housing units at 16 Spring Street are completed by a replacement main contractor.

November 2022 – Subcontractors remain unpaid

Region contacts six subcontractors to find out if they were eventually paid for the work they did helping to build the Spring Street dwelling, all of whom confirmed they were still owed large sums of money.

14 July 2023 – Payment demand letters sent to subcontractors

At least two subcontractors still owed money receive payment demand letters from the liquidator, ordering them to pay money back to Matrix. LAHC continues to refuse to pay or help these subcontractors.

31 July 2023 – Minister’s office starts investigating

NSW Housing Minister Rose Jackson’s office says it is “looking into this matter [and] will provide an update on this soon”. As at 17 August, Region is still waiting for this update.

Original Article published by Oliver Jacques on Region Riverina.

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Over the last thirty years, I’ve noted with fascination the repetitive cycle of non-payment in the construction industry, which is usually in tandem with some eye-watering expensive government study that delivers the same outcome (reason) as the previous one and that seemingly does nothing to address the issue.

Before buying a farm on the far south coast and living the dream in absolute poverty and obscurity, I was actively involved in the construction industry for over two decades, representing clients whom the main contractor or principal had not paid.

So I have to ask the question “With all the legislation promulgated to prevent this exact issue, and with definitive pathways through decades of caselaw to provide relief to the victims, why do we have a whole heap of tradies out of pocket for work done by a government agency?”.

I’m not offering legal advice as I no longer hold a practising certificate. However, have these tradies actually received proper legal advice from a litigator in this field, or are they content to whinge and play the victim instead?

Apologies, I know that it sounds a bit harsh, but there is sufficient law in NSW to guarantee that you get the pay if you do the work. Period.

Look at all the coverage that this masthead is giving on this subject. It ranges from the ex-CEO of the busted firm calling on the government to pay the tradies to the Member for Wagga doing the same.

No wonder honest tradies get shafted every time.

Get real, get angry, start fighting for what is yours under law.

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