A Labor staffer has told a Victorian anti-corruption hearing he handled “wads of cash” from MPs to pay for party memberships and bought thousands of dollars worth of stamps with public funds that were used for political purposes.
Adam Sullivan, who worked in a series of roles for MPs in Labor’s moderate faction, gave evidence on Wednesday at the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (Ibac) investigation into branch stacking within the Victorian branch of the ALP.
Ibac has heard Adem Somyurek allegedly masterminded a vast branch stacking operation on behalf of the moderate faction. He has not appeared at the public hearings which started on Monday.
Branch stacking and paying for memberships is not illegal, but the commission is investigating whether public resources were misused to further factional activities.
On Wednesday, Sullivan said that in 2018 he was advised by Nick McLennan, another staffer who worked on behalf of the moderate faction, to buy stamps using the electorate office budget of Somyurek. Sullivan said he was asked to “re-route” the stamps inconspicuously, so as to not attract the attention of parliamentary services, the body which investigates electorate office spending.
Sullivan was employed as a full-time electorate officer for Somyurek at the time. While he had no direct knowledge of Somyurek approving the scheme, Sullivan said McLennan told him he had spoken to Somyurek about it, and Sullivan did not believe it would be a problem because of the “environment” within the office.
Sullivan said he bought $11,000-$14,000 worth of stamps and “a fair number” of them were sent on to be used in the election campaign of Tim Richardson in Mordialloc. No suggestion was made during the hearing that Richardson, a current MP, was aware of the scheme.
Sullivan said he heard evidence given earlier this week by federal MP Anthony Byrne in relation to widespread branch stacking within the moderate faction, which involved paying for the memberships of others in breach of party rules.
When asked by Chris Carr SC, counsel assisting, where the funds to pay for these memberships came from, Sullivan said in his experience it was provided by MPs or “aspiring” MPs.
He gave three examples during which this occurred: when he was given about $700 by Byrne, when he was given $2,000-$3,000 by Somyurek, and when he was given $4,000-$5,000 by Steve Michelson, a former Labor staffer.
Byrne gave evidence earlier this week that Michelson made the contribution to the memberships kitty so that he would be looked upon favourably in his bid for a federal seat.
With the exception of Byrne, Sullivan said the other payments were made in the form of “wads of cash” in an envelope. Byrne has previously told the commission the funds were sourced in part from holding large fundraising dinners.
Michelson issued a statement to Guardian Australia on Friday, saying he had only ever paid for his own ALP membership and had never been involved in branch stacking.
“Whilst I have made many donations to the party and to individual campaigns, I have always understood those donations to be for standard and legitimate campaign costs,” he said.
“I condemn in the strongest possible terms anyone who has systemically breached the party’s rules or engaged in corrupt conduct.”
Carr asked Sullivan a series of questions about the cleanliness of Somyurek’s electorate office, where he worked full-time for eight months starting in August 2017.
Sullivan described it as “decrepit, run down, it came complete with cobwebs”, and there was a cockroach infestation in the kitchen that required an exterminator.
Somyurek paid for his father to clean the office, Sullivan confirmed, but he said the only time he saw him was when he arrived asking to be paid. The only evidence any cleaning had ever been done was about once a week when it appeared the bathroom had been cleaned, he said.
Sullivan gave evidence there was a “pattern” of Labor branch secretaries also holding positions in electorate or ministerial offices, despite the former being a political role and the latter being publicly funded.
The faction was powerful, Sullivan said, but it would be wrong to suggest that meant it was well run. “Moderate Labor was held together with crazy people and sticky tape,” he said.
The faction put checks in place to make sure they did not fraudulently renew the membership of a person who had died, as it would be hard to explain should they “arise from the dead”, Sullivan said.
Sullivan said that he was directed to do factional work while employed with public funds by Somyurek, Byrne and Victorian MP Marlene Kairouz – and that he had never been told not to do factional work.
He said Kairouz allowed him and other electorate or ministerial staff to complete voter ballots from a conference table in her ministerial office in 2018 while she worked at a desk. Kairouz stood down as an Andrews government minister in 2020 and has denied any involvement in branch stacking.
That same year, a text message exchange between Sullivan and Somyurek – tendered as evidence to the commission – suggested Sullivan arranged to pick up cash for party memberships from Somyurek at parliament only days before renewals were due.
Sullivan told Carr there had been an acceptance of branch stacking within the party, and a disregard for any concern about the use of public resources for factional work, because everyone in the party was doing it, and therefore had “skeletons in the closet”. Nobody would blow the whistle because it would have led to “mutually assured destruction,” he said.
Last year, when Sullivan left his last job with the Labor party as an electorate officer for Tien Kieu MP, he decided it would be right to tell Somyurek.
Carr asked why, at the time of this decision, Sullivan referred to Somyurek in texts to his friends as “mein fuhrer”.
He said it was due to the environment under Somyurek’s leadership and Byrne had even referred to a factional meeting about that time as like the “Fourth Reich”.
Carr said Sullivan was described by those that knew him as a “thoroughly decent person”. Sullivan agreed when Carr asked whether he did things he was “thoroughly ashamed of” during his time employed in the offices of MPs. He said he no longer had any ambition to be involved in politics.
Sullivan said the only hope of reform was the intervention of Ibac, as Labor needed “a new cop on the beat” because the party continued to ignore its own rules and regulations.
“This has been a bit of a wicked problem we’ve had … we chose independently to do the wrong thing again and again and again.”
The public hearings resume on Monday.