The New South Wales Labor candidate Khal Asfour has withdrawn from the upcoming election after media reports detailing expenses he claimed while on an overseas trip for a Sydney council.
Asfour, the Canterbury Bankstown mayor who was to run for the upper house, said through a spokesperson he had been subjected to a “vicious smear campaign” and would pull out from the race with two months until polling day.
“The latest headlines are the last straw,” the spokesperson said on Friday morning.
“The mayor is vehemently denying any wrongdoing and has at all times adhered to the policy set by council, a policy scrutinised by the office of local government.”
The Daily Telegraph on Friday detailed expenses he claimed on a 2015 work trip to Japan, allegedly including alcohol and a spa treatment that Asfour said was to treat cramping he had experienced on the flight.
A council spokesperson told the newspaper that claiming the cost of alcohol within daily allowances was permissible under council rules.
The opposition leader, Chris Minns, said Asfour had made the right call to stand down and described the charges to ratepayers as unacceptable, flagging he wanted to reform council allowances if elected in March.
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“It’s clear that he’s a distraction when it comes to the big task that we’ve got to take on the Liberal party in just over 60 days’ time,” he said.
“It’s also absolutely unacceptable to be charging those things to ratepayers in this state.”
Minns said he had “private conversations” with Asfour before he stood down but repeatedly declined to say if he had told him to do so.
The premier, Dominic Perrottet, said he would also support a review of council spending.
“It clearly doesn’t pass the pub test,” he said.
“When you’re using taxpayer and ratepayer money, you need to do so prudently. There should be the highest standards in place.”
The former Labor MP Tania Mihailuk last year used parliamentary privilege to claim the mayor had links and dealings with corrupt former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid, before she was kicked from the frontbench and then defected to One Nation.
Earlier this month, Asfour was cleared of any wrongdoing after an investigation by the Sydney barrister Arthur Moses SC into claims Asfour had attempted to help further his family’s interests over a car park redevelopment.
The investigation found “no evidence” of any corrupt or unlawful conduct on Asfour’s part.
However, on Friday Asfour’s spokesperson said a campaign against him had taken a toll on his family and the Labor party.
“The attack on the mayor has been a political hatchet job and those pursuing him must be condemned,” the spokesperson said.
“The mayor realises the attacks will continue and it is in the Labor party’s best interests he is not a distraction.”
During the inquiry into his dealings, Asfour said he believed he had gotten “under the skin” of the government when he advocated for his western Sydney community during the pandemic lockdown.
“I stood up for my community and many other residents of western Sydney during the harsh lockdowns and overzealous policing during the Covid pandemic,” he said.
“I’ve had a political target on my back ever since.”
On Friday, One Nation’s Mark Latham said Asfour should also stand down from his position on council.