Gladys Berejiklian had ‘inclination to support’ $5.5m Wagga shooting complex, Icac hears

Documents tendered in NSW corruption watchdog hearing suggest former premier personally asked for project pushed by her secret boyfriend Daryl Maguire to be considered for funding

Gladys Berejiklian expressed an “inclination to support” a $5.5m grant for a shooting complex in Wagga Wagga which her then-secret boyfriend Daryl Maguire had been personally lobbying for, the Independent Commission Against Corruption has heard.

The grant was approved by the state’s powerful expenditure review committee despite treasury officials recommending against it.

On Tuesday the commission revealed that an official inside the NSW treasury department wrote that Berejiklian had asked for a funding proposal for a shooting range and clubhouse put forward by the Australia Clay Target Association to be “brought forward” to the committee in December 2016.

In an email on 6 December 2016 the official, Yogi Savania, wrote that Berejiklian, then the treasurer, had “expressed an inclination to support the proposal”. The commission has heard evidence that public servants in the office of sport viewed the project as “low priority”, with a “deficient” business case.

The $5.5m grant is one of two at the centre of the Icac’s investigation into whether Berejiklian breached the public’s trust by “exercising public functions” in circumstances where she had a conflict of interest because of her secret relationship with Maguire.

The premier resigned this month after Icac announced it was investigating her conduct. She has consistently denied any wrongdoing and has said that history will demonstrate that she acted in the best interests of the people of NSW. She has yet to give evidence in the current hearings.

On Tuesday the corruption watchdog heard evidence from a senior public servant within the office of sport that officials within the department were left in the dark about why the grant went from a “low priority” to requiring “urgent” submissions to cabinet within weeks.

The inquiry heard evidence from the former bureaucrat Paul Doorn that despite Maguire “pushing” for the project from as early as 2012, officials within the agency did not believe the project deserved priority funding.

“We didn’t think it stacked up,” Doorn told the commission.

In part, Doorn said, that was because Sydney already had an Olympic-quality facility for shooting, and funding the project in Wagga Wagga would have the effect of “cannibalising” it.

The agency applied to the treasurer to fund a business case for the project in 2012, the commission heard, but it was listed as the lowest priority of 15 proposals put forward for funding, and was rejected.

In 2016 Maguire again approached the minister for sport – Stuart Ayres, now the deputy NSW Liberal leader – but Doorn told the inquiry the agency’s opinion on the project had not changed.

However, Doorn told the inquiry it was clear the project had some level of political support, and he was asked by Ayres’ office to prepare an “urgent” draft submission to the expenditure review committee, headed by Berejiklian.

Doorn told the hearing he did not know why that occurred other than that the treasurer had approved a submission to the ERC.

“No information was sort of provided in that space, it was clear there was a level of urgency but we weren’t privy to the rationale for that,” he said.

But a tranche of documents tendered by counsel assisting the commission, Scott Robertson, shortly before the inquiry adjourned on Tuesday, suggested Berejiklian had personally asked for the proposal to be brought before the committee, and she may have had a meeting with Maguire in the weeks leading up to the decision.

On 5 December 2016, Savania received an email from the chief financial officer of the department of premier and cabinet stating Ayres had “agreed with [Berejiklian]” that the shooting complex “should be considered” by the ERC, the documents show.

“There’ll be a one stage process only,” the email read.

Savania later told Icac investigators that it was the “first we [inside the department] had heard of it” and that he had emailed one of Berejiklian’s policy advisers, Zacharia Bentley, to ask for more details about the proposal.

Though he could not remember the details of his conversation with Bentley, the next day he sent a second email to colleagues in which he said Berejiklian had expressed an “inclination to support” the project and had asked for it to be brought forward for funding consideration.

In correspondence sent to the commission about the email, Savania wrote that it had been Berejiklian’s “prerogative to bring forward any item for ERC consideration, and to indicate support for any proposal”.

But, he noted, an “arms length” assessment of the project by treasury had led to it advising that it did “not support the recommendations in the submission, as a net benefit to the state has not been adequately demonstrated”.

In the transcript of a private hearing in April this year, Bentley told Icac investigators he remembered the then-treasurer being “amenable” to the project.

“I mean my assessment, Mr Robertson, was always that the treasurer was willing to, had a one, had an old relationship with Mr Maguire in that they were, had been colleagues in parliament for a long time, but twofold, Mr Maguire wasn’t factional, [and] you know, not particularly factionally aligned and therefore should always be courted,” he told the commission.

During Bentley’s interview he was shown a briefing note that he wrote to Berejiklian on 22 November 2016 in which he stated about the clay shooting project: “This issue came to a head during a discussion I’ve had with Daryl [Maguire] last week prior to him meeting with you.”

Pushed by Robertson during the interview on what he meant by the meeting between Berejiklian and Maguire, Bentley said he was not at the meeting and couldn’t recall details about it, but said he was often “privy to the fact … the treasurer was scheduled to have a meeting with an MP”.

“So they’ve, they have obviously met in relation, and this matter has been raised in the course of that meeting,” Bentley said in the interview.

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As the inquiry heard on Monday, staff members in the office of sport held concerns about the proposal and had attempted to recommend the government undertake a feasibility study before deciding whether to fund it.

But when Doorn made a draft submission to Ayres’ office that included a recommendation for a feasibility study, it was ultimately removed in favour of funding the entire project.

“We wouldn’t make that decision ourselves, that would have been made on feedback from the minister’s office,” Doorn said on the change to the recommendation.

He agreed it would have been “career limiting” to continue pushing back on the proposal once the minister’s office had decided to back it.

Doorn said there “comes a point in time” after having “robust discussions” with the minister that a public servant has to “present information to allow the minister to achieve his political objectives”.

He told the inquiry he was “surprised” when the project eventually received funding.

On Monday the inquiry heard that Michael Toohey, the public servant tasked with drafting the submission for the shooting complex, had a number of concerns about the proposal, including a “deficient” business case prepared by a third-party company.

Toohey told the commission the proposal’s economic credentials were “somewhat optimistic” and elements of the plan “didn’t stack up”.


Michael McGowan

The GuardianTramp

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