Consumer’s complaint deserves independent scrutiny.
“CLEARED!” shouted the headlines. Around Australia newspapers and radio stations have reported the “exoneration” of a Ballarat real estate agent accused of inappropriate behaviour in a client’s home.
Headlines such as “Agent cleared of sex claim” were based on a press release from the Real Estate Institute of Victoria. The REIV said its best practice committee had investigated claims that the agent was caught in compromising circumstances with a woman inside a house he was marketing. On the basis of this “investigation”, the institute’s CEO Enzo Raimondo declared that the complaint from the home owner was “completely unfounded”.
In doing so, Raimondo and the institute have impugned the credibility and reputation of the home owner and his family, alleging “seven or eight discrepancies” in their versions of events (without explaining what these inconsistencies are).
The truth, however, is that there was no “investigation” and this matter is far from settled. More will be heard about it.
First, let’s look at some of the facts. The agent accused of misconduct is Geoff Sewell, who runs Geoff Sewell Real Estate in Ballarat. Sewell was appointed to sell a home owned by Ballarat resident John Skewes. Skewes’ daughter Linda claims that when she visited the house in January she found Sewell and a woman in a compromising position in the bedrooms area. She claims she recognised the woman as someone she previously worked with, Susanne Sullivan, who now works for Sewell.
Sewell, however, says the woman was not Sullivan but a potential buyer he was showing through the home. Indeed, it is claimed that Sullivan was not in Ballarat at the time, but was holidaying overseas.
This is a situation where the public depends on media to do its job. Clearly, the Real Estate Institute, a body set up to protect the interests of real estate agents, is not an independent arbiter in this matter. It is not the police, nor Consumer Affairs Victoria, nor the ACCC, nor any other independent body with official standing with the public.
Therefore, its findings demand scrutiny. Questions need to be asked. To date, no one in media has asked those questions. The institute’s statement has been accepted at face value and reported as fact.
A vigilant media would have questioned the objectivity of the institute and its findings. It would have examined the track record of the institute and other similar bodies throughout Australia in handling consumer complaints against agents. It would have asked how the institute “investigated” the matter and arrived at its conclusions.
It might have suggested that Sewell could easily clear up the matter by producing the “buyer” he was showing through the house – if the woman was a genuine buyer inspecting the home, she would surely have no problem confirming this.
Where is the mystery woman?
The public is accustomed to having industry bodies whitewash complaints against their members. But the manner in which this matter has been handled sets a new low. The institute has readily accepted the agents’ evidence and dismissed the claims of the home owner.
Its statement is so tainted with vested interest, it warrants step-by-step examination.
The REIV claims to have conducted “a full and proper investigation”. It did nothing of the sort. It merely read letters from some of the parties involved. It did not interview the owner of the house or his daughter about their claims. It did not check out the rebuttal claims by the agent and his staff member – it simply accepted them as fact. It accepted a “travel itinerary” as proof that the staff member was overseas at the time, when simple checks could have established the truth or otherwise of this. There was no investigation.
The REIV claims that the allegations against Geoff Sewell are “completely unfounded”. The institute is not entitled to make such a statement. It has not interviewed any of the parties involved or subjected the evidence to independent scrutiny.
The REIV claims that Sewell “has been completely exonerated”. This is not the case. The REIV is not the police or the judiciary. It is an association of real estate agents which looks after its members.
The REIV claims “there is no evidence that Mr Sewell had engaged in any improper conduct”. This is also incorrect. There is evidence – the institute has chosen to accept Sewell’s claim that the evidence is false.
The REIV claims that “Mr Sewell was simply showing a potential buyer through the property dressed in casual clothes on his first day back from holiday”. How does the REIV know this? Because it has accepted Sewell’s word, without question, and dismissed contrary opinions.
God help us all if the law courts even adopt such standards.
As far as the REIV is concerned, it’s “case closed”. But the issue is far from settled. Hopefully Consumer Affairs Victoria will do a more thorough job and conduct a genuine investigation, so we may learn the truth of this matter.