A former adviser to Gladys Berejiklian was so shocked to learn of her secret affair with disgraced ex-Liberal MP Daryl Maguire that he spat out the water he was drinking.
Zach Bentley gave sworn testimony to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption six months ago, but it has been suppressed until now.
The ICAC is investigating if between 2013 and 2018 the former NSW premier engaged in conduct that constituted or involved a breach of public trust.
As the corruption commission builds its case against Ms Berejiklian before her highly anticipated appearance next week, late last night the watchdog released the transcript of an interview with Mr Bentley, a former close adviser to her.
Counsel for ICAC, Scott Robertson SC asked Mr Bentley on April 29 when did he ‘first become aware of the existence of, to use Ms Berejiklian’s phrase, or at least the phrase that she adopted, close personal relationship?’
‘When I received a text message during the course of Ms Berejiklian’s evidence, to which I spat my water out,’ Mr Bentley replied. Mr Robertson asked if he ‘literally spat your water out?’
The revelation of former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian’s (pictured left) secret relationship with Daryl Maguire (right) was so shocking it caused one of her advisers to spit out the water he was drinking
Asked if he was shocked at the revelation, Mr Bentley said ‘I can’t express to you, Mr Robertson, my horror upon learning that.
‘Not horror, sir, but more, these are two people I’ve known quite well and the fact that I had no knowledge of it, like, yeah, it was quite shocking.’
The extent of how secretive the affair between Ms Berejiklian and Mr Maguire was laid bare when Mr Bentley was asked if there were any ‘rumours circulating in the corridors of power as to the existence of such a relationship?’
‘I can’t stress to you the number of people who have asked me whether I knew or suspected anything, given that I’m the only person who’s worked for, actually one of only two that have worked for the two of them. At no point in time did I ever suspect that they were in a relationship,’ said Mr Bentley.
A concerned looking Gladys Berejiklian will front the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption next week
Asked if he would have performed his duties as an adviser differently if he had known of the relationship, Mr Bentley answered that Ms Berejiklian is ‘very good at siloing certain components of her life, so … I don’t know whether I would have acted differently.’
He added: ‘I must say, Mr Robertson, and you surely appreciate this by now through the hearings, (ministerial) staff, by and large, acted … at the direction of their particular principal.’
Pressed by Mr Robertson if he would have done anything differently if he’d known that his boss and Mr Maguire were in a relationship at the time she was backing a pet project of his in his constituency of Wagga Wagga, Mr Bentley replied ‘No, I don’t believe so.’
In Tuesday’s ICAC hearing, a seemingly run of the mill email Mr Bentley linked Gladys Berejiklian to a controversial project being investigated by the corruption watchdog.
ICAC was shown reams of correspondence about an apparent pre-Christmas rush to get a multi-million dollar project favoured by Mr Maguire onto the agenda of a major budget meeting.
It was December 2016 when a funding proposal which public servants repeatedly rubbished as a ‘low priority’ was suddenly rushed to a cabinet committee meeting with the help of Ms Berejiklian, who was then NSW Treasurer.
With a subject line of ‘Wagg (sic) Wagga Clay Target Shooting’, Mr Bentley wrote: ‘The Treasurer has requested this issue be put on the agenda for the ERC meeting on 14 December.’
Those 18 bland words were presented to ICAC on Tuesday as part of its evidence against the former NSW premier.
A seemingly bland, 18-word email is causing difficulties for former NSW premier Gladys Berjiklian
An email presented in evidence to ICAC said Gladys Berejiklian, who was then the state treasurer, gave approval for a controversial project to be taken to the NSW government’s expenditure review committee
ICAC is investigating whether Ms Berejiklian encouraged or allowed corrupt conduct by her secret ex-boyfriend and disgraced former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire.
Counsel for ICAC Scott Robertson SC spent the day questioning former public servant, Paul Doorn, who is now the chief executive officer at NSW Rugby Union and NSW Waratahs.
If he’d known Ms Berejiklian was in a close personal relationship with the MP pushing for the project, it would have been a ‘red flag’, Mr Doorn told ICAC.
He said there was ‘a lot of push’ from local MP Mr Maguire to get funding for the shooting facility in Wagga Wagga.
Mr Doorn had repeatedly classified the proposal as ‘low priority’, raising concerns about a lack of detail and the fact it would be in competition with an Olympic-standard clay shooting facility the government owned in Sydney.
‘We didn’t think it stacked up,’ he said.
Mr Doorn said there were ‘very clear rules’ for disclosing conflicts of interests. If he’d known about the former premier’s relationship with Mr Maguire, he would have had to approach his department secretary
‘Ultimately that would be then drawn to the attention of organisations like ICAC,’ he said.
At the end of Tuesday’s hearing, Mr Robertson, tendered documents relating to witnesses who are not expected to give evidence during the public hearings.
This included an email on December 6, 2016, from a Yogi Savania in NSW Treasury to Josh Milner, also in Treasury, that said, in part: ‘FYI Josh. Could you try and get her hands on this from OOS [Office of Sport].
‘I spoke to Zach (Bentley) re this. The treasurer has requested this be brought forward and has indicated an inclination to support the proposal.’
Paul Doorn, chief executive officer at NSW Rugby Union and NSW Waratahs, arrives at an Independent Commission Against Corruption hearing in Sydney on Tuesday, October 19. ICAC’s Operation Keppel is in its first week of hearings into whether former premier Gladys Berejiklian breached public trust
ICAC heard that Ms Berejiklian approved the final version of a funding submission for a state government grant for the Australian Clay Target Association (ACTA) to be taken to the NSW government’s expenditure review committee (ERC) in December 2016.
An email presented in evidence said Ms Berejiklian gave that approval on December 2 and the ERC was to consider the proposal on December 14, 2016.
The ERC subsequently approved a conditional grant of $5.5 million.
Mr Robertson referred to the ACTA proposal as a ‘Build it and they will come project.’
ICAC is investigating whether Ms Berejiklian
1. Engaged in conduct between 2012 and 2018 that was ‘liable to allow or encourage the occurrence of corrupt conduct’ by former Liberal MP Daryl Maguire, with whom she was in a close personal relationship between 2015 and 2018
2. Exercised her official functions dishonestly or partially by refusing to exercise her duty to report any reasonable suspicions about Mr Maguire to the ICAC
3. Exercised any of her official functions partially in connection with two multimillion-dollar grants in Mr Maguire’s electorate, to the Australian Clay Target Association Inc and the Riverina Conservatorium of Music.
He asked Mr Doorn if it would be considered a ‘career-limiting move’ to continue advising a minister, in this case the Sport Minister, that a proposal was a ‘bad idea’.
Mr Doorn agreed that there ‘comes a point in time’ where after a public servant has given ‘frank and fearless advice’ they then need to support a government decision.
In earlier proceedings on Tuesday, ICAC heard that in 2012 Mr Maguire wrote to the then Sport Minister, Graham Annesley, about funding for a new shooting centre.
Mr Doorn said it was ‘not just a shooting range but a broader facility’ that was being proposed.
As there was already an Olympic standard shooting facility in Greater Sydney that was used for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, this meant the funding request was to support a second international-standard shooting facility in the state.
Asked whether he gave advice about whether this was a good use of funds, Mr Doorn said he advised that it would be competing with an existing facility owned by the state, but ‘we would always explore it’.
An email from the time, which was entered as evidence, said ‘A low priority will be given to the project’.
Mr Robertson said ‘the likelihood is that it won’t be funded at all’ if a proposal is of ‘a low priority’.
Mr Doorn, who was then an executive director of the NSW Office of Sport, said he recalled that Mr Maguire wrote a second letter to the sport minister in 2016, following the earlier letter in 2012.
In 2016 the minister was Stuart Ayres, who is now the NSW Trade and Industry Minister. Mr Ayres is not accused of wrongdoing and is expected to give evidence later this week.
Former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian (front) and her former boyfriend Daryl Maguire
The Australian Clay Target Association is part of an ICAC inquiry into former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian
Mr Doorn said the association had ‘done a bit more work on what was a skeleton proposal’ for constructing international-standard facilities, including a clubhouse.
But he added that the lack of detail was still a challenge. No cost-benefit analysis had been provided but the government was considering providing funding of $40,000 to help the Australian Clay Target Association apply for more funding.
Mr Doorn said the government occasionally provided ‘seed funding’ to allow a cost-benefit analysis to be undertaken by a group seeking a bigger amount of money from the state government.
‘It’s not standard but it did happen from time to time. It would be rare,’ he said.
An email presented in evidence to the ICAC on Tuesday. It mentions an Invictus Games event could possibly be held at the proposed Wagga Wagga facility. But it later emerged that the Invictus Games does not have a shooting event
Mr Doorn said he recalled that in conversations with a colleague, Michael Toohey (who gave evidence on Monday) in late 2016, that they had ‘concerns’ about the project and how they might ‘safeguard the government’.
He later added that ‘Perhaps compared to other projects it just lacked the detail.’
The commission heard repeated evidence that the Australian Clay Target Association proposal seemed to lack value to the state.
‘It would have been towards bottom’ in priority, Mr Doorn said, while an email from another public servant said the previous time ACTA sought funding was rated the lowest of 15 proposals in 2013-14 and not funded.
ICAC also heard that a feasibility study option ‘disappeared’ from the second draft of a funding submission for a grant for the ACTA.
The initial draft featured two potential recommendations. The first was to approve a grant of $500,000 for a feasibility study for upgrading facilities, and the second was to approve a grant of $6.7 million to develop a large clubhouse.
Gladys Berejiklian (pictured right) is under investigation by ICAC for her conduct while NSW premier in relation to her former boyfriend, ex-MP Daryl Maguire (pictured left)
By the time it got to the second draft, the first option had ‘disappeared’, Mr Robertson said.
Mr Doorn said ‘We wouldn’t make that decision ourselves; that would have been made on feedback from the [sport] minister’s office.’
‘We would have provided a draft and then had a discussion around what that looked like.’
ICAC is investigating the conduct of Ms Berejiklian and her ex-boyfriend the former Liberal MP for Wagga Wagga, Mr Maguire, concerning $35 million in state government grants issued to the Australian Clay Target Association and the Riverina Conservatorium of Music in Mr Maguire’s electorate when Ms Berejiklian was NSW Treasurer.
Former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian seems to have a lot on her mind as she walks in Northbridge on Sydney’s north shore
Ms Berejiklian has repeatedly, strenuously denied any wrongdoing and said she always acted in the best interests of the people of NSW.
Mike Baird, who was the NSW premier at the time of the $5.5 million state government grant to the Australian Clay Target Association in Wagga Wagga, is expected to give evidence at ICAC today, as is his former director of strategy, Nigel Blunden.
Former NSW premier Mike Baird (pictured right) is set to appear before the ICAC inquiry into another former NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian (pictured left)