Immigration charity subject to AFP probe as donors left in the dark over memorial that was never built

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Hundreds of thousands of dollars were donated and an artist prize awarded for the design of an immigration monument in Canberra, but more than a decade later it remains no more than an idea.

Federal investigators are now looking into the charity behind the plan to find out where those funds have gone.

At least $700,000 was raised from nearly 7,000 individual public donations, initially offering migrant families the opportunity to buy plaques to line a memorial bridge across Lake Burley Griffin.

The idea for a bridge was scrapped in 2010 amid pushback over its heritage impact and a memorial sculpture was then pursued instead.

But 14 years after the organisation was registered, the monument is yet to be built.

Donors left in ‘total darkness’
The idea for the footbridge began in earnest in the early 2000s, with the organisation offering families plaques at $110 each to help raise the required $30 million.

Hungarian-Australian Attila Urmenyhazi was an early supporter of the project after being told about it by a friend in Canberra.

“He said ‘would you be interested?’ I said ‘of course I would, I want my name to be engraved, for my descendants to feel proud’,” he said.

Mr Urmenyhazi received a certificate for his donation.

“I thought we would see the monument within a year or two, but nothing happened,” he said.

Between 2006 and 2011, the organisation sold about 6,500 plaques, raising more than $700,000 for the project.

During the same period the organisation brought in a further $445,000 in sponsorship.

Bridge scrapped for immigration sculpture-

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Amid community concern about the impact of the project, the federal parliament conducted a parliamentary inquiry into the bridge in 2009.

The committee found the project would need to be altered to address the issues of other lake users.

Committee member and then-senator Kate Lundy also criticised the not-for-profit for selling plaques before the project was approved.

“They were led to believe that this was a foregone conclusion, that’s not the case,” Ms Lundy said at the time.

The following year the group voluntarily nixed the bridge proposal in favour of a land monument, to be sited near the National Archives in the Parliamentary Triangle.

The newly-renamed organisation, Immigration Place Australia, offered refunds to plaque donors, but financial documents obtained by the ABC indicate fewer than 50 chose to get their money back.

The group initially indicated their plans to have the revamped project completed in time for Canberra’s centenary in 2013.

Donated money spent on consultants, advertising

Documents obtained by the ABC show the organisation raised at least $1.24 million, with the majority of that gained through handrail sales.

But the group spent virtually all that money, including at least $500,000, on accounting, auditing and consultancy and a further $250,000 on advertising.

By 2015 the organisation was in debt and ran a deficit of nearly $100,000.

The group’s charity status was revoked by the federal regulator earlier this year for failing to submit annual statements in 2016 or 2017.

Its website continues to solicit donations, but the linked payment provider rejects attempts to donate with the message that “this recipient is currently unable to receive money”.

The Australian Federal Police confirmed they received a referral over allegations made against the not-for-profit and the matter was currently being assessed.

It is understood the cross-agency Fraud and Anti-Corruption Centre has been involved in the effort and at least one person has been spoken to by investigators.

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