A senior New South Wales public servant has told Icac he believed he was asked to redo the business case for a multimillion dollar shooting club in Wagga Wagga – after it was initially found to be deficient – because then premier Gladys Berejiklian was “particularly interested” in the project.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption (Icac) on Thursday heard evidence from Chris Hangar, a former director of funding and infrastructure in the NSW industry department, that in early 2017 he was tasked with organising a business case for the $5.5m shooting club and conference centre.
The grant is one of two at the centre of Icac’s investigation into whether Berejiklian breached the public’s trust due to her secret relationship with the former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire. She denies all wrongdoing and has said history will show she acted in the best interests of the people of NSW.
Hangar told Icac that from the time he came across the proposal he understood it had a high level of political support because of its referral from the government’s powerful expenditure review committee chaired by then treasurer Berejiklian in 2016.
Icac has previously heard the project gained conditional approval from the ERC in late 2016 following years of lobbying by Maguire and despite numerous bureaucrats and political advisers raising significant concerns about the project’s value and importance.
After its approval by the ERC, the project was referred to Hangar’s department, at the time headed by then deputy premier John Barilaro, to compile what he described as a “satisfactory” business case to support the project.
Hangar told Icac one of Barilaro’s staff members, Peter Minucos, took a keen interest in the project, going as far as speaking directly with the company engaged to complete the business case.
Minucos became “heavily involved” in developing the project, Hangar told Icac on Thursday, something he agreed was “inappropriate” when asked by counsel assisting the commission Scott Robertson.
“It’s peculiar for them to be involved in advice around that in the way Mr Minucos did,” Hangar said.
Hangar told the inquiry he was given the impression, based on conversations with Minucos and other senior staff in his department, that there was interest in the project from the “premier herself” who by that time was Berejiklian.
“A range of conversations at that time indicated the premier and premier’s office were particularly interested in this particular project,” he told the commission.
“The way in which it had come forward and the speed in which we needed to procure the business case following that ERC decision all indicated to us a strong interest out of that office in regards to the project.”
Minucos is not being investigated as part of the Icac inquiry.
Hangar told the inquiry the initial business case for the project had a benefit-to-cost ratio of 0.88, which was insufficient to gain approval from Infrastructure NSW, the body charged with signing off on the project.
That was not the end of the grant, however. Hangar told Icac he was directed to “revisit” the business case by staff in Barilaro’s office, though he understood it had come from Berejiklian’s office.
Robertson presented an email from Hangar from May 2017 in which he said Barilaro’s office had directly asked the company which drafted the business case to “review and update the Wagga Wagga clay shooting plan to include more of the expected benefits”.
“My understanding at that time was that the interest was out of the premier’s office,” Hangar said. “But it was clear to us we needed to look at that business case again and that’s ultimately what happened.”
The project subsequently received a benefit-to-cost ratio of 1.1 after the business case was reviewed, enough to gain approval from Infrastructure NSW.
Icac is conducting two weeks of hearings into whether Berejiklian breached the public’s trust by “exercising public functions” in circumstances where she had a conflict of interest because of her relationship with Maguire.
At the heart of the inquiry are two grants: the $5.5m given to the clay target association and $30m for the Riverina conservatorium of music, both in Maguire’s electorate, in 2017 and 2018.
Hangar is also giving evidence about the second grant on Thursday – the first time it has yet been raised in the inquiry.