A senior Metropolitan Fire Brigade official employed her two sons in a case of "calculated deception" that cost the public $400,000, a watchdog has found.
Mary Powderly-Hughes doctored the resumes of both her sons, in one case concealing a period of incarceration with false employment, to employ one first at Parks Victoria, then later both at the MFB, an investigation by the Victorian Ombudsman found.
The sons both changed their surnames within days of their employment at the fire service, concealing their relationships with their mother.
In a series of scathing remarks in a report tabled to Parliament this month, Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass lashed out at the MFB for the unprecedented breach.
"Some cases I have investigated over the years seem so unlikely you could not make them up," Ms Glass said.
"Except, as in this case, they did.
"This was a case of deception where the family nest was feathered, plain and simple."
The ombudsman's investigation found that Mrs Powderly-Hughes failed to declare her relationship to her first son, who she employed at the MFB, awarded a pay increase, then engineered a recruitment process to ensure his ongoing employment.
She then hired her second son, the ombudsman found.
The ombudsman found David Patrick Powderly-Hughes had changed his name to David Hewson three weeks before his job interview.
The investigation found there was no evidence to support Mrs Powderly-Hughes' assertion she had conducted reference checks on Mr Hewson.
She also found Mr Hewson was interviewed by a former MFB employee who was not actually employed until five days after her son began working there.
Mrs Powderly-Hughes falsified her son's CV to include experience at Telstra, the ombudsman said.
Checks with Corrections Victoria under his previous name revealed Mr Hewson had been jailed for traffic-related offences at the same time his resume said he was working at Telstra.
Jail time may not have precluded him from filling the role, but by failing to do a police check, the MFB was unable to fully assess his suitability, the ombudsman said.
The MFB paid Mr Hewson about $266,000 for less than two years' work.
In his first interview with the ombudsman on December 15 last year, Mr Hewson had denied a relationship to Mrs Powderly-Hughes.
However, in a written statement after being shown evidence from the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Mr Hewson confirmed Mrs Powderly-Hughes was his mother.
He said she'd told him she had walked into "the job from hell and needed help".
"She said that it would be a good idea to change my name, as she already had enough trouble with the union members in her team," his statement said.
The investigation revealed evidence the mother and son had also engaged in similar behaviour at Parks Victoria.
Mrs Powderly-Hughes had been chief information officer from September 2013 to April 2014. Mr Hewson – then Mr Hughes – had joined as projects officer in January 2014.
He was paid $74,540 for a six-month contract with Parks Victoria.
"Consistent with her actions at the MFB, the relationship was concealed from a recruitment agency, not formally declared or made known to staff or management," the ombudsman said.
Back at the MFB, Ms Powderly-Hughes hired her second son, Barry Vincent Hughes, who had changed his name to Barry Robinson.
In a similar pattern of deception, she again falsified her son's CV before interviewing him at her home for the job, the ombudsman said.
Asked during the investigation if Mr Robinson was qualified for the position, Mrs Powderly-Hughes said: "No, not really. He had been all his life a motor mechanic".
Mr Robinson started with the MFB on August 16 last year, reporting to his brother, who in turn reported to their mother.
He was paid almost $75,000 for 159 days' work. He had changed his surname only 15 days before his start date.
Ombudsman Deborah Glass said her office regularly encountered cases of nepotism, but that they rarely displayed such calculated behaviour.
She said it was a "blatant case of deception," which had cost the public more than $400,000 over a number of years.
Acknowledging that this case involved conduct very difficult for organisations to detect, Ms Glass said it demonstrated the need for public sector leaders to ensure conflict-of-interest policies were embedded in the organisational culture.
"Although all three subjects are no longer in the public sector, I am tabling this report to expose both the reality and the danger of such behaviour," Ms Glass said.
The MFB said it had forwarded the case to police.
In a statement, a spokesman said it fully co-operated with the investigation and "acknowledges" the report's findings.
"As soon as MFB was made aware of the conduct in question, we took immediate action to ensure that the staff members were no longer employed or engaged," he said.
The spokesman said the brigade had also begun working to implement the report's recommendations.
With Robyn Grace