Celeste Barber’s $52m legal fight over RFS donation
Comedian Celeste Barber has engaged a legal team to sort out a dispute over the $52m she raised during the bushfire disaster.
Barber led the most successful single fundraising effort on her social media platforms, encouraging 1.3 million people from all over the world to donate to the NSW Rural Fire Service.
But the campaign hit a snag when it was discovered fundraising rules governing the RFS meant the money had to be spent on firefighting equipment and none could be donated to families or shared with other charities.
Lawyers for Barber and the RFS will meet this week to work out if it is legally possible to break up the money.
Meanwhile, not a cent of the $52 million has been spent.
Barber has already met with RFS bosses over the issue and both parties are working to try to find a solution.
A source said it was "common knowledge" among emergency service workers involved in fire recovery planning that Barber was frustrated to learn the money could not be spent "on the ground".
"She's not happy. There's been tensions because she wanted the money to go to the troops and the RFS said they decide where the money is spent," he said.
"At the end of the day there are rules within the RFS that money has to be spent on equipment and training. That's not where she wanted it to go."
Barber will today again publicly call for cash donations when she hosts the Fire Fight Australia bushfire relief concert.
Crowd-funding website GoFundMe has already transferred the entire lump sum into a trust fund run by the RFS. Barber's record-breaking fundraising campaign was initially pledged to the Trustee For NSW Rural Fire Service and Brigades Donations Fund.
But, as the money poured in and the effect of the fires widened, Barber changed the terms of her appeal, declaring the funds would also be shared with Victorian and South Australian firefighting agencies, animal welfare group WIRES, the Red Cross and the widows of fallen fireys.
The RFS said it wanted to honour Barber's wishes but was not confident it could be done.
"We want to distribute the money in line with (Barber's) wishes," RFS spokesman Ben Shepherd said. "Our lawyers will meet (Barber's) lawyers to try and find a way.
"No one is being bad about this, it's all very amicable, and we will try and see her wishes through.
"But, as it stands, the RFS is the beneficiary and we can't donate money people gave us to other charities."
The RFS trust exists solely "for the purpose of supporting the volunteer-based fire and emergency service … in order to enable or assist them to meet the costs of purchasing and maintaining firefighting equipment and facilities, providing training and resources and/or to otherwise meet the administrative expense".
Provided they can find a legal loophole that allows the funds to be dispersed, lawyers will then need to determine how much money will go to each charity so it best reflects what donors expected when they parted with their cash.
Barber could not be contacted for comment but took to Instagram last month asking donors to trust the money would be shared.
"It seems with raising a f … k-tonne of money comes with a f. k-tonne of people telling you what you should do with it," she said.
"So it's going to the RFS and it will be distributed out. I'm going to make sure that Victoria gets some, that South Australia gets some, also families of people who have died in these fires, the wildlife.
"I get it, I get it all, I'm hearing you all. I want you to know that, otherwise why raise this money if it's not going to go to the people who absolutely need it?"