At least two departments have been asked to hand over documents to the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption as it renews its probe into the disgraced former MP for Wagga Wagga, Daryl Maguire, and NSW government grants made to projects in his seat.
The latest focus of the corruption watchdog is believed to be the 2017 grant of $5.5m for the Australian Clay Target Association’s clubhouse and convention centre in Wagga Wagga, which Maguire championed. Details of the grant were first revealed by the ABC in December. A Department of Premier and Cabinet official last month declined to answer questions about the grant in the NSW upper house on the basis that it was presently being examined by Icac.
The project is potentially a problem for Maguire because Icac has previously heard evidence that he stood to receive a small commission through a company, G8way International, from the development. The commission was allegedly payable for the supply of plastic seats for the convention centre. The club and its officials are not under investigation and there has been no suggestion they were aware of any wrongdoing.
Known as Operation Keppel, Icac is investigating whether Maguire sought to profit from his role as an MP.
What have previous Icac hearings revealed?
Under questioning, Maguire has admitted he received thousands of dollars in payments from an illegitimate “cash for visas” scheme and that he was effectively in control of a company called G8Way International, which he accepted sought to sell “influence and experience that would reach to the highest levels of government”.
The nation was shocked when the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, made a surprise appearance as a witness at the hearing in 2020 and revealed she was in “a close personal relationship” with Maguire. Her relationship with Maguire ended a few months before Icac began its public hearings.
Icac played telephone intercepts of Maguire discussing with the premier his financial difficulties. On at least one occasion, she replied: “I don’t need to know that.”
At the time, Berejiklian strenuously denied any knowledge of Maguire’s improper business activities and appeared only as a witness.
Icac had been expected to hand down its report earlier this year, but in March it announced: “the Commission’s Operation Keppel investigation is ongoing”.
Now the question is: will the premier be required to make another appearance before Icac and in what capacity?
The $5.5m grant to the Australian Clay Target Association will be a complex event to unravel because several departments and ministers were involved in processing and evaluating it.
The Australian has reported that the deputy premier, John Barilaro, who was also minister for regional NSW, and the former sports minister Stuart Ayres have been called to Icac to give evidence at private hearings. There is no suggestion they were involved in any wrongdoing.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Berejiklian said she was not a person of interest in Icac’s Operation Keppel.
What does the premier have to do with it?
At the time the Australian Clay Target Association grant was first discussed by the NSW government, Berejiklian was NSW treasurer and in a secret “close personal” relationship with Maguire.
According to documents produced in NSW parliament under a call for papers by Greens MP David Shoebridge in the NSW upper house, Maguire first wrote to Berejiklian on behalf of then CEO of the Australian Clay Target Association, Tony Turner, on 27 January 2016 seeking funding from the NSW government.
Berejiklian’s response on 18 February 2016, referred him to then-sports minister Stuart Ayres: “The Minister will respond to you on behalf of the NSW Government. Thank you for bringing Mr Turner’s request to the Government’s attention.”
According to the documents, Ayres initially declined to support the then $4.5m request for the project because it fell outside the scope of current sport and recreation funding programs, and was in excess of the maximum grant.
However, the NSW Office of Sport subsequently supported a larger funding submission for the Australian Clay Target Association, which was put forward to the Expenditure Review Committee (ERC) of cabinet in December 2016. It was ultimately funded by RestartNSW – a fund controlled by Treasury.
As treasurer, Berejiklian would normally chair ERC meetings. If she chaired any meetings that considered the grant, there is an argument that she should have declared a conflict of interest, because of her secret relationship with Maguire.
Berejiklian has previously downplayed her involvement in awarding the grant, telling an estimates hearing in NSW parliament: “If you are suggesting that the Treasurer of the day personally signs off on every single funding allocation that is made, that is incorrect.”
By 23 January 2017 Berejiklian had become premier.
Documents – including a detailed timeline produced by Treasury – reveal the convention centre project was initially not supported by Treasury because it did not have a positive business case.
However, the funding was set aside by ERC in December 2016 and provided a pathway to approval provided conditions were met. Infrastructure NSW then appears to have taken over reviewing the project and once it was assessed again after changes, the project was green-lighted in August 2018.
The changes included making the Australian Clay Target Association’s convention centre bigger, which then improved its business case as a useful piece of infrastructure for Wagga.
Aside from the questions about the Berejiklian’s role in the December 2016 ERC meeting which reserved the funding, documents have emerged through calls for papers and committee hearings which point to the premier taking an interest in the project’s progress during 2017.
The executive director of Regional NSW, Chris Hanger, wrote to the Infrastructure NSW CEO, Jim Betts, on 1 June 2017 requesting the clay target grant and three other unrelated grants be considered for approval.
“The Department’s Investment Appraisal Unit has assessed the updated business case provided by ACTA for the development of a large clubhouse/conference facility and associated infrastructure at their existing site in Wagga Wagga after a request by the Premier,” he wrote.
Another email, sent on 20 June 2017 from the deputy secretary of the department of Regional NSW, Gary Barnes, to a senior staffer in the premier’s office informed the office that funding for the Wagga project would soon be approved.
“Just wanted you in the loop given Premier’s interest,” Barnes wrote.
Berejiklian denied any impropriety in the handling of the grants.
Asked whether her apparent involvement in the process amounted to a conflict of interest, given her relationship with Maguire, Berejiklian told reporters on 9 August: “The proposition you are putting is absolutely ridiculous and all proper processes were followed.”
Berejiklian has previously downplayed her involvement in awarding the grant, telling an estimates hearing in NSW parliament: “If you are suggesting that the treasurer of the day personally signs off on every single funding allocation that is made, that is incorrect.”
Icac has a strict policy of not commenting on investigations or even their existence prior to a public hearing or a report being issued. Witnesses to private hearings are summoned on the basis that they cannot talk about the investigation or their evidence. Unsurprisingly Ayres and Barilaro have refused to comment. It also makes it difficult for the premier to provide any meaningful response.
Icac refused to comment on the matter for this story.