The business partnership behind the controversial LGBTI Awards has gone nuclear with one director accusing the other of theft. Maria Slade reports
One of the biggest rows Linda Riley ever had with her business partner Silke Bader was over the Topp Twins.
The story as Riley tells it is that the twins were due to perform at the inaugural New Zealand LGBTI Awards last November. The wildly popular Kiwi singing duo had been asked to take part in a group rendition of ‘Man in the Mirror’, but the song choice didn’t sit well with them and they refused to sing it.
Dames Jules and Lynda Topp later publicly distanced themselves from the Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed upon them that evening, saying their “souls had been sold to the highest bidder”. They had believed the event was organised by the local rainbow community, not an Australian-based commercial operator.
Riley, an Englishwoman, created the original LGBTI Awards in the UK with her former wife seven years ago. She and Bader subsequently brought the concept to Australia, and then in 2018 to New Zealand.
Bader had said she’d written to the Topp Twins on behalf of the awards organisers to inform them of their contractual obligations, according to Riley.
Riley was incredulous. “I just went, ‘what? You’ve written a letter under my name to two of the biggest lesbians on the scene?’”
New Zealand was where things really started to go wrong between the business partners, Riley says.
There had been growing tensions, with Riley based in the UK and Bader running the day-to-day in Sydney, but it was on this side of the Tasman that matters took a sharp turn for the worse.
In June 2018 nine Kiwi LGBTI groups put on a rare show of unity and wrote a joint letter to the Australian organisers, expressing displeasure at their sudden arrival on the New Zealand rainbow scene and concern over a lack of transparency about how the awards operated.
Nominees including broadcaster Alison Mau and journalist David Farrier shunned the event, with Farrier writing this investigation for the Spinoff about the bizarre nomination process.
New Zealand was “a disaster”, according to Riley. “It was really a strain on me, it was so embarrassing.”
She had also been worried about the setup, she says. Her ethos in the UK was to give back to the community wherever possible but that didn’t seem to be happening in New Zealand. The unusually long ‘shortlists’ of nominees and a relentless social media campaign were a thin ruse to achieve maximum ticket sales, she believes.
Riley and Bader have fallen out so badly that they are now only communicating through lawyers. Riley has laid a complaint against Bader with Sydney police alleging she and her wife took A$25,000 from the awards bank account. She accuses her former friend of using the company coffers as “a personal piggy bank”, and of adopting her awards concept.
Riley also doesn’t officially know whether the New Zealand LGBTI Awards are going ahead again this year, but through some sleuthing has discovered there is a booking at Auckland’s Cordis hotel for December 6.
Silke Bader declined The Spinoff’s multiple invitations to be interviewed or answer written questions about the soured partnership and controversial awards, but in correspondence with Riley she has strongly rejected any suggestion of theft or fraud as “baseless”.
In an email to the Spinoff she wrote: “While my co-director, Linda Riley, is spreading false and defamatory accusations about me, I will not be responding in kind and will continue to seek a resolution of the dispute if possible. Given this situation, I am exploring my legal options and will not be making any further public comments at this time.”
“I’m just so angry at the moment,” Riley says in her soft London accent.
She’s speaking from Sydney, where she has just attended the 2019 Australian LGBTI Awards. Awards night last Friday was “pretty awkward”, she says.
“I don’t know how Silke can walk around pretending that she’s running it all. It’s almost like I’m a spare part in these awards that I’ve created. I don’t know how she’s got the barefaced cheek.
“But I was determined to go because the whole creation was my idea.”
Riley is a longtime gay rights advocate, events organiser and publisher of lesbian magazines in the UK. Sydney-based Bader is an entrepreneur, publisher of Lesbians on the Loose (LOTL) magazine and former Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras board member. The two women met on a cruise four years ago when Bader introduced herself after a talk Riley gave.
The pair quickly struck up a friendship and decided to buy the UK-based DIVA magazine. However the geographical and time differences proved challenging, and eventually they agreed that Riley would buy Bader out of the business.
Meanwhile they hit upon the idea of establishing the Australian LGBTI Awards. Riley’s ex-wife had gained the UK LGBTI Awards in their amicable divorce settlement and was content to let her former partner replicate the event in another market.
Emails from 2016 when the new friends were setting up the Aussie awards show it was a joint effort, with the concept based on Riley’s original UK awards programme. “I gave Silke an equal partnership in exchange for working on the ground and instead of pay,” she says.
The two women also agreed that Riley would pay £20,000 for Bader’s stake in DIVA out of her share of the awards profits.
Riley set about organising sponsors she had worked with in the UK such as Amazon and Vodafone to support the Australian event, while Bader handled day-to-day matters at the Sydney end.
Riley admits she made mistakes in the management of the venture. For example, Bader had sole authority over the bank account. When Riley contacted the bank in January to inform it of the dispute and get a freeze put on transactions, it was the first time she’d had anything to do with the banking.
“I take that on the chin,” Riley says.
“I trusted her, she was my friend. In the UK we’re 11 hours difference, if she needed to make a payment immediately, it was just easier.”
Riley also isn’t sure which entity owns the Australian and New Zealand Awards. She had thought it was the pair’s trading company, Twin Media Group Pty Ltd, but she has since been told it is a trust they established to hold DIVA called the Twin Media Group Unit Trust.
“To be honest I don’t know why I signed the trust document but Silke said it would be good for her tax situation, which I was okay with,” she says.
Things started to get tense in the run up to the 2018 awards. The pair argued over the awards programme which described Bader as CEO and Riley as ‘director’.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know who made you CEO, we’re equal partners and we get equal billing’.”
They agreed to amend it to describe themselves as ‘joint CEOs’, “but even at that point I was like, ‘this is going a bit crazy’.” Riley says. “I was getting the feeling of getting shoved out.”
It became a battle to get information out of Bader, and it took her until this January to get copies of invoices, company bank statements and accounts, she says.
Bader claimed the awards were short on money and that the New Zealand event lost $30,000 – a figure Riley has been unable to stack up.
“I thought ‘this is strange, because we’ve got so many sponsors’.”
When she finally got the financial paperwork she discovered payments to Bader’s other companies, Avalon Media and L Media, for things like ‘rent’, ‘sharing software’, and ‘design of LOTL magazine’, she says.
“Why are the awards paying for her magazine?” she asks.
“We’re equal directors and shareholders, she cannot give money to her own company… without approval,” Riley says.
The Spinoff has seen lists of payments simply described as ‘Silke dividend’, or ‘Linda dividend’, with no apparent agreed schedule or amounts.
The email trail between the business partners operating from opposite ends of the globe details the deteriorating relationship. By December 2018 they were discussing how to part ways.
“I do know that I do not wish to continue this business partnership. It’s simple: We do business so different, I am struggling!” Bader writes on December 29.
Bader was considering buying Riley out, but the pair were miles apart on the perceived value of the venture. The bickering continued into the new year.
“I would like to manage this too but there is no way after the time and energy I put into setting this up and giving you half of a business that was actually my idea that I am going to walk away from my own idea and creation,” Riley writes on January 2.
On January 13 they agree to park discussions of a buyout until after the Australian awards on March 1. “I am concerned that if we carry on discussing this we are just going to end up falling out and making it harder to work together,” Riley writes. She also offers to take on more of the day-to-day responsibility of running the awards, although points out the effort was always supposed to be divided into “you on the ground, me providing the strategic direction”.
Bader replies that this is not the agreement they had. “It might have been an understanding in the first year, as there was no room for wages.” She then refers to a large debt Riley owes to “Tanya” (presumably her partner, Tanya Sale).
Two days later things go nuclear. Riley has seen the bank statements and accuses Bader of taking A$100,000 in “loans, unauthorised transfers to her companies and dividends” from the business, as compared with her own total dividend of A$62,000. “Can you please explain why you seem to have received A$38,000 more in dividends and unauthorised loans than me?” she asks.
“To say I am disappointed at the tone of your email is an understatement,” Bader replies. She says she is transferring a dividend of $10,000 to them each as a goodwill gesture.
But Riley claims only one lot of $10,000 has been transferred, and that is to Bader. She demands that the funds be returned to the company account. “I consider an alleged fraud and theft has been committed by you against Twin Media Trust Ltd [sic],” she claims, “and you have left me no option other than report to my solicitor and then to the police.”
Bader’s reply is equally explosive. “I totally refute your baseless allegations of fraud and theft and will advise you that if you repeat those allegations to any third party, I reserve the right to sue for defamation and slander for damage to my reputation,” she says.
Meanwhile Riley notifies the company’s bank, and the Twin Media account is frozen.
More lengthy email exchanges follow. Riley gives Bader 24 hours to repay the alleged $38,000 dividend difference. Bader makes lengthy and convoluted attempts to explain what funds have gone where, and argues the pair have received roughly equal amounts in dividends over the period of the awards’ operation.
Then the legal letters start flying. On January 21 Bader’s lawyer Michael West writes to Riley with a long list of grievances. “It is apparent from the course of actions you have embarked upon that you are mounting an active campaign to bully my client into resigning her directorship of the company and taking full control of the business,” he says.
Riley fires straight back, saying she has never authorised use of any funds from the company apart from £20,000 apparently owed to Bader’s wife Tanya Sale for the DIVA stake. “From Ms Bader’s statements it appears that she seems to be confused as to what dividends are. Dividends are not company expenses and cannot be used arbitrarily for self-remuneration.”
She says she is “still awaiting clarity and explanation” about A$25,000 listed as ‘Linda dividend’ but which she says has gone to Sale and is on top of the repayment of the DIVA debt. There have been “disturbing irregularities with transfers and items purchased”, she writes. She makes a series of counter-demands, including the return of $25,000 and Bader’s resignation as a director of Twin Media.
Riley says she still hasn’t seen the $25,000. When she arrived in Sydney to attend the LGBTI Awards she went straight to police and laid a complaint over the allegedly missing funds.
“I considered it to be actual theft because the money in the bank statement made it look like it was going to my account, when actually it had gone to her wife’s account,” she says.
The police confirm they are investigating and have been in contact with Sale’s solicitor.
The former friends remain at an impasse, and Riley doesn’t know what she’s going to do about the Australian and New Zealand LGBTI Awards.
“Obviously I don’t want her (Bader) to run them any more. They’re my brainwave, my creation and she was just an events manager I gave a share of the business to.
“If I walk away Silke is just going to run them, and run them down in my view.”
On the LOTL site Bader is described as having launched the Australian awards, with no mention of Riley, and on her LinkedIn page she lists herself as the awards CEO.
Riley points out that Bader’s company L Media registered the business names ‘Asia Pacific LGBTQI Awards’, and ‘LGBTQI Awards’ with the Australian Business Register on January 8, and questions the motivation behind that.
She also says the website domain name for the Australian awards is registered to L Media.
Julian Cook, a veteran LBGTI event organiser and founding festival director of Auckland Pride, is doubtful there’s any appetite in New Zealand for the awards.
“Generally speaking, if you’re not a part of a community I wouldn’t think that it’s appropriate for a person or organisation to come in to a community and organise an awards on their behalf,” he says.
“We are Aotearoa New Zealand and that comes with a whole lot of cultural considerations that a templated overseas ceremony just doesn’t take into account.”
He also points out that New Zealand’s rainbow community is small. “Those things do tend to become a bit Groundhog Day year to year. You end up with the same people nominated and often the same people winning.”
Additional reporting by David Farrier.
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