Most coffee-sipping customers at the old cafe Brunetti in Carlton would have barely noticed the grey door on the other side of Faraday Street. It is the private entrance to the large penthouse of Giancarlo Martini-Piovano, the former Italian military man who for 40 years has run the charity Comitato Assistenza Italiani, or CoAsIt.
Overlooking Melbourne's celebrated Italian precinct around Lygon Street, the apartment is an ideal vantage point for someone charged with the wellbeing of Italians and their culture in Victoria.
With the dignitaries who are the mainstays of his board, including former governor Sir James Gobbo and former Supreme Court judge Bernard Bongiorno, Martini-Piovano has spent more than $145 million of taxpayer funds on Italo-Australian welfare in the past 20 years.
But for some in Melbourne's Italian-Australian community, that door on Faraday Street has come to symbolise their concerns.
How the employee of a community-run charity came to occupy a private penthouse atop the organisation's headquarters is one of many questions about CoAsIt that, until now, have been quietly canvassed within the Italian community.
For the first time, such discussions are being aired more widely, the result of a bitter dispute over the management of CoAsIt, and mounting criticism that it is losing its way and the trust of the community it is meant to serve.
At stake is the future of millions of dollars, the nurturing of Italian culture, some big reputations, and CoAsIt itself.
This is no minor community spat. Of Victorians born overseas, Italians are the single largest group after those from Britain; their impact on the shape, taste and smell of Melbourne, in particular, is profound. CoAsIt is the umbrella body for that community; its Carlton properties have been dubbed the "jewels" of Italian Melbourne by Franco Vaccari, whose mother co-founded CoAsIt in 1967.
Until last year, it was widely believed across the community that these "jewels" - which include two properties in Drummond Street, three on Faraday Street and two on University Street - belonged to CoAsIt. In fact, most of the titles belong to a little known and secretive parallel organisation called the Italian Services Institute (ISI), run by a coterie of CoAsIt elders, including Martini-Piovano, Gobbo and Bongiorno, lawyers Vince Volpe and Guiseppe Sala, and architect Vito Cassisi.
As Fairfax reveals today, CoAsIt elders have funnelled almost $17 million in cash, profit-making welfare activities, rent and property improvements into ISI, an organisation whose principal purpose for many years - according to annual financial reports - was to provide "social facilities" for its 11 members. The precise nature of the "social facilities" is not clear; neither CoAsIt nor ISI leaders will elaborate.
The little-known ISI is separate from CoAsIt but most of its committee members also sit on the CoAsIt board. It is now in control of $12 million in cash reserves and property without a clear plan for its use.
CoAsIt was established to care for the thousands of often poor post-World War II immigrants who arrived here without English. The integration of younger generations with the wider community raises questions about the charity's future role and, therefore, about what is to be done with millions of dollars in cash and property squirrelled away by ISI.
Central to the row is the criticism that CoAsIt has closed itself to the wider community and is failing to openly debate such questions.
"Management of this organisation [CoAsIt] is inward-looking and mysterious," celebrity chef and community activist Stefano de Pieri says. "They run the organisation in a way that says, 'We know what we are doing, you people bugger off'. That is how CoAsIt presents itself."
That certainly was the impression CoAsIt members formed when they turned out in unusual numbers to the group's annual general meeting in December. Just weeks before, former Brunswick Labor MP Carlo Carli was sacked from his job co-ordinating CoAsIt's Museo Italiano after asking unwelcome questions of his employers. His dismissal appears to have been the catalyst for rebellion.
The atmosphere at the Faraday Street meeting was tense, with president Rhonda Barro backed by CoAsIt's lawyer, apparently in anticipation of a rare public grilling. In particular, those present wanted answers about ISI and its relationship with CoAsIt.
The mood darkened when questions in Italian were banned because attendees including the CoAsIt lawyer did not understand the language. Barro told the meeting she did not know who the members or directors of ISI were (ISI's financial records show Barro was in fact a committee member at the time). Questions about CoAsIt's relationship with ISI were not answered in any detail.
Darebin councillor Angela Villella joined CoAsIt last year and was troubled by what she witnessed at the December meeting. "The tone was resistance to openness and transparency. To me that puts a question mark over the governance of the board."
The row over CoAsIt is, in part, the continuation of decades of tension among Italian community leaders. Already-established Italo-Australians founded CoAsIt to care for post-World War II migrants. The established Italian migrants came to Australia in small numbers from the late 1800s. Among them was Gualtiero Vaccari, who built a small empire importing products such as oil, fabric and cars from the old country.
Other early arrivals included the family of Gobbo, the former Supreme Court judge and Liberal-appointed Victorian governor. He was born in Melbourne in 1931. Vaccari's charitable bequests were used to establish CoAsIt. His wife, Elda, became its first president.
From its earliest days CoAsIt faced criticism from younger community activists, first for the Catholic Church-influenced handout mentality under Elda Vaccari, and then for the patrician-style of the men who came to dominate the organisation since they replaced her in the 1970s.
The line coming from CoAsIt's Sydney-based public relations firm - appointed late last year to handle all media inquiries - is that the fracas is due to stirring by Carli, whom they depict as a disgruntled former employee. There's little doubt that the senior CoAsIt figures of more conservative political leaning would see the attack from Carli - of the Labor left - as part of an old right-left battle over leadership of the Italian community.
While remnant factionalism and score-settling might be a factor in the tension, Fairfax Media has spoken to a wide cross-section of the Italian community to establish that troubles transcend old political enmities.
Melbourne barrister and CoAsIt member Vincent Morfuni, SC, says CoAsIt continues to reflect attitudes of the past. "Italy pre-war was a stratified society. An elite controlled everything and assumed they knew better than everybody else."
Morfuni says this social structure translated to Australia in the attitude of the established community figures towards poor immigrants.
"The established leaders compelled the newcomers to be consumers of the services they provided, not to share in decision-making. With CoAsIt, that attitude became more entrenched by the fact that for decades there were very few changes to the board, and no changes to the chief executive," says Morfuni.
Chief executive Martini-Piovano is indeed widely viewed as a dominant, patriarchal figure at CoAsIt. "He is a father figure to a lot of his staff," says one former employee.
There is also mounting concern about CoAsIt's services and future strategy. A museum, opened with fanfare by then premier John Brumby in 2010, is a case in point. In its 2012 annual report, CoAsIt says the museum's second year saw it building a presence through a "rich and varied" public program. But the museum also cut staff, including the most experienced and qualified, and community leaders say CoAsIt appears to have lost interest.
"I was very impressed with the museum to begin with," says de Pieri. "But I no longer see efforts to make it more dynamic." Fairfax visited the museum twice in recent weeks to find no visitors. On a third visit the museum was closed on a Wednesday.
But it is CoAsIt's aged care services that are generating the most heat in the debate.
With 45,000 people of Italian descent in Victoria over 65, the community is the largest ethnic group within the state's elderly cohort. Yet leaders of some senior citizens and social groups have little idea what CoAsIt is doing. "A lot of money is given to CoAsIt from the government to help people in need - old people and seniors - but what they do with it I have no idea," says Antonio Telera, the head of the Dromana Italian Seniors Social Club. "It's time [someone] investigates what CoAsIt is doing."
Italcare is a profit-making aged care business established by CoAsIt but transferred to ISI in 2010. It was transferred, it appears, for nothing. CoAsIt's 2011 annual report notes case management programs for aged Italians were at capacity. "Funding constraints" meant others seeking help would have to wait at least a year.
Such comments have riled critics who say that while elderly Italians are struggling without care, Italcare profits are being used to build up multimillion-dollar cash reserves for ISI. An analysis by Fairfax Media shows that Italcare is highly profitable, generating average annual profits of more than 30 per cent over the past three years, including through government-funded aged care services such as the Home and Community Care program.
The rules for such programs do not specifically preclude agencies from making profits. But such profit levels are unusual in the sector.
A key question for ISI and CoAsIt centres on the stockpiling of money. ISI now has millions of dollars in cash and property, but what does it plan to do with it?
In a written statement to Fairfax Media in December, CoAsIt president Rhonda Barro and chief executive Martini-Piovano said money was donated to ISI for "aged care accommodation" and "in accordance with the express powers of CoAsIt's constitution". The same statement later pointed to the increasing need for at-home care.
As far as Fairfax Media is aware, the statement is the first public explanation for the transfer of funds to ISI. Yet, after 20 years of ISI's existence, no accommodation has been built nor plans finalised for an aged care centre.
Late last year - after Carli in particular had formally asked questions about ISI and its money - ISI employed a consultant to develop a strategy for the Italian aged. Fairfax Media understands the consultant has recommended a consortium of Italian welfare groups spearhead a new strategy for care of older Italo-Australians.
But sources who have briefed Fairfax Media on the consultant's draft report say there are no major recommendations for the spending of ISI's substantial cash reserves.
CoAsIt's explanation for its donations to ISI - so that it can build residential aged care - has perplexed many community leaders. They say they had no idea the charity intended to fund the building of residential aged care centres. CoAsIt's own reports have long highlighted the trend towards aged care in the home.
Franco Vaccari, son of Gualtiero and Elda Vaccari, has worked for many years in aged care and been involved with CoAsIt and other Italian welfare groups. He says CoAsIt never expressed an intention of moving into the residential side of the sector. Like many others in the community, he did not know ISI existed before last year.
He points out the needs of Italo-Australians have changed since the post-war years when thousands of homesick but hopeful "new Australians" first surveyed dreary '50s-era Melbourne from the cramped decks of ships at Station Pier; many without money or English.
Dedicated Italian welfare was important then, but increasing affluence and command of English have made many services unnecessary since, he says.
"The first-generation of Italian migrants are very quickly diminishing and are at their end-of-life period. They've aged and are reverting back to their mother tongue," says Vaccari. "Caring for this group as they age is the most urgent need confronting the Italian community. There is a role for CoAsIt, provided it is run in a transparent way."
Beyond CoAsIt's inner sanctum, community leaders acknowledge, like Vaccari, that CoAsIt's role should change as the post-war migrants pass away, leaving younger generations immersed in mainstream Australia.
Such a scenario, they say, makes all the more important open debate about CoAsIt's future and the millions of dollars in cash and property stockpiled under ISI's control.
Stefano de Pieri is concerned that rather than debate and redefine its place, CoAsIt has accepted its own "atrophy". "It doesn't seem like a dynamic and open organisation ... Many in the community see things differently. They believe CoAsIt should be playing a much bigger role, opening a new chapter in the celebration of Italians and their culture in Australia."
His late mother Elda co-founded CoAsIt. "Every effort must be taken to ensure CoAsIt's assets, the jewels of the Italian community of Melbourne, are administered and protected in a competent and transparent manner."
Darebin councillor and CoAsIt member
"I was curious about the living arrangements for the (chief executive officer Giancarlo Martini-Piovano). He lives upstairs (above the offices at 189 Faraday Street) and I tried to ask the question: Who is paying that rent? It's a fairly significant amount of money."
president of the Italian Seniors Social Club Incorporated Dromana
"A lot of money is given to CoAsIt from the government to help people in need - old people and seniors - but what they do with it I have no idea ... It's time (someone) investigates whether they are doing what they are supposed to or not."
STEFANO DE PIERI
"We don't know anything about the Italian Services Institute. If there is an organisation running parallel to CoAsIt we want to know what it is there for and what it is doing."
Sacked by CoAsIt after asking questions about its operations.
"The Italian Services Institute is a secret in the Italian community. Its membership is limited to a few individuals and its accountability uncertain."
VINCENT MORFUNI SC Barrister
"I think the majority ... would want CoAsIt to continue but on a much more transparent and participatory basis."