Barry O’Farrell with Nick Di Girolamo, right, at the Italian Chamber of Commerce Business Awards Gala Dinner. Photo: Supplied List of expenses: Nick di Girolamo. Photo: Nick Moir
Arthur Sinodinos heads into the ICAC hearing on Castlereagh Street in Sydney. Photo: Chris Pearce
NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell takes the stand at the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Hello and welcome to the Herald’s live blog from the Independent Commission Against Corruption – where NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell is about to become the fourth serving premier to front a public hearing.
The inquiry has heard explosive allegations this morning that Nick Di Girolamo, then chief executive of Obeid-linked company Australian Water Holdings, sent O’Farrell a $3000 bottle of Grange in 2011 to “butter him up” over a proposed public-private partnership.
O’Farrell faces questions about why he didn’t declare the lavish gift on his pecuniary interests register, and what happened in an allegedly “cosy” meeting with Di Girolamo a month later.
O’Farrell has been attempting to dodge the media pack outside ICAC but should be in the box within minutes.
Barry O’Farrell is somewhere in “the environs” said his barrister John Agius, SC. Keen anticipation in the public gallery #icac— Kate McClymont (@Kate_McClymont) April 15, 2014
Barry O’Farrell’s silk, John Agius, SC, was counsel assisting the 1990s Wood Royal Commission into NSW police corruption.
The Premier is approaching the witness box.
O’Farrell says he thinks he was in a car with Di Girolamo when they went out to inspect the work of AWH in Sydney’s north-western suburbs.
He says he can’t recall “in detail” a dinner at law firm Clayton Utz on June 10, 2009, which was attended by O’Farrell, Liberal fundraiser Paul Nicolaou, now the NSW chief executive of the Australian Hotels Association, and Di Girolamo, among others.
He says he had “no knowledge” of Australian Water Holdings until he became Opposition Leader and it appeared at the time that it served a “worthwhile purpose”.
Barry O’Farrell is now in the wittness box, he looks nervous. #icac#nswpol— Mark Coultan (@mcoultan) April 15, 2014
O’Farrell says it was “not all that common” for him to see Di Girolamo at football games.
But he adds: “Certainly when I went…it would not have been surprising if I’d seen Mr Di Girolamo”.
Asked if Di Girolamo attended a $30,000 dinner with him, organised by the Italian Chamber of Commerce in aid of the Queensland flood appeal, he says: “I think so.”
“Are you Barry Robert O’Farrell?” counsel assisting ICAC, Geoffrey Watson, SC, says.
“I am, Mr Watson,” the premier replies.
Watson gets straight to it: when did O’Farrell first become aware of Australian Water Holdings chief executive Nick Di Girolamo, a prominent Liberal Party fundraiser and associate of the Obeids?
O’Farrell says it was around 2007 and he was interested in AWH’s work. He says it was not until he was Opposition Leader that he noticed Di Girolamo at Liberal Party events.
Barry O’Farrell is asked about the uncanny coincidence of “lots of money going in to Liberal Party coffers” from Australian Water around the time he wrote a letter of support for the company’s proposal for a PPP while in opposition.
The Premier says he rejects “completely” any suggestion he was influenced by the donations.
“What drives me mad is perception,” he says, warming to the subject. “I will not and do not make decisions on the perception of donations being made. What got under my skin [in opposition] was not just what I believed was happening under the former Labor government but the perception that all politicians were tarred by the same brush.”
“Twenty-seventh of May, four o’clock on a Friday,” O’Farrell says of a critical 2011 meeting with then Australian Water chief executive Nick Di Girolamo in Parliament.
“It was to be for a grand total of 15 minutes.”
The former finance minister, Greg Pearce, gave rather pointed evidence last week that he was “taken aback” at how “cosy” the meeting appeared to be when he arrived.
O’Farrell says he did not have a “partisan” interest in Australian Water but was interested in “land release”. The company had positioned itself as being able to unlock the supply of new housing developments by providing access to water and sewerage infrastructure.
Pmr @barryofarrell tells #icac his broad support for AWH proposal, was not influenced by AWH donations to Liberal Party. @NewsTalk2UE— Derek Peterson (@DerekP2ue) April 15, 2014
Now the inquiry turns to the ticklish subject of Di Girolamo lobbying the O’Farrell government over a public-private partnership proposal with Australian Water Holdings.
ICAC has heard the family of corrupt former Labor minister Eddie Obeid were “secret stakeholders” in Australian Water and stood to make up to $60 million from the deal.
O’Farrell says he was aware of the proposal.
“No surprise there that a Liberal National Party or Coalition would be supportive of private sector delivery of services,” says.
Collective intake of breath from the ICAC hearing room.
O’Farrell is shown a phone record showing he called Di Girolamo at 9.29 pm on April 20, 2011 – the day he allegedly received the $3000 bottle of Grange.
This would tally with Di Girolamo’s evidence that O’Farrell thanked him for the gift in a telephone call.
“I have no knowledge,” O’Farrell says of the 28-second call.
OMG! #ICAC just shown a call from Barry O’Farrell to Nick di Girolamo at 9.29pm on the day the Grange was delivered.— Kate McClymont (@Kate_McClymont) April 15, 2014
Geoffrey Watson is pressing O’Farrell about the coincidental “collision” of dates: the premier allegedly receives a $3000 bottle of Grange and, just over a month later, he meets the alleged sender, Nick Di Girolamo, in state Parliament.
O’Farrell reiterates that he and his wife Rosemary have no recollection of the gift.
Asked about his involvement in a contract granted to Australian Water during his government, O’Farrell says he had no part in it “at all”.
Counsel assisting ICAC, Geoffrey Watson, SC, is asking the question on everyone’s lips: “How does a fellow like this, Mr Di Girolamo, get this kind of access to the premier?”
O’Farrell says that Di Girolamo was a former managing partner of a Sydney law firm, Colin Biggers & Paisley, was the head of a company doing work in the north-west and chaired the Italian Chamber of Commerce.
“I do think we need to judge people as we found them at the time and not with the benefit of hindsight,” he says.
And now the inquiry turns to a $3000 bottle of Grange…
Counsel assisting ICAC, Geoffrey Watson, SC, turns his focus on what Barry O’Farrell’s chief of staff Pete McConnell was doing in mid 2010.
O’Farrell was then Opposition Leader and McConnell was emailing the then deputy chairman of Australian Water, now Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos, about Australian Water’s plans for a PPP (with chummy salutations such as “comrade” and “keep fighting”).
O’Farrell is not perturbed by McConnell suggesting he would welcome Australian Water chief executive Nick Di Girolamo sending a draft of a letter from O’Farrell supporting the PPP.
“He’s really there going in to bat [for Australian Water] if you like, he’s really encouraging them,” Watson says.
On the explosive subject of a $3000 bottle of wine allegedly couriered to his house at the behest of Australian Water boss Nick Di Girolamo, O’Farrell says he’s “certain I would remember receiving a bottle of Penfolds Grange, certainly one from my birth year”.
“I’m no wine connoisseur. I don’t drink a lot these days, that’s evidenced by my size,” O’Farrell says of his slimmed-down physique.
“I noticed that,” counsel assisting ICAC, Geoffrey Watson, SC, says.
“I commend you to it,” O’Farrell quips, to a hearty roar from Watson.
O’Farrell drops a reference to his gym routine and Watson rejoins: “Stop boasting.”
“It’s the Don Bradman of wine, it’s unforgettable isn’t it?” Watson says.
“I don’t believe I would have forgotten it,” O’Farrell says.
O’Farrell admits that he and Di Girolamo had each other’s mobile numbers.
Asked how often they contacted each other, the premier says: “I don’t recall the frequency but certainly we had phone numbers.”
He says they would occasionally text about football and the contact was about “once a month” or “once every two months”.
“I might have been returning calls,” he says.
Barry O’Farrell said he occasionally exchanged texts with Nicky D G, maybe once a month #ICAC— Kate McClymont (@Kate_McClymont) April 15, 2014
Watson has finished grilling O’Farrell. The lawyer for former energy minister Chris Hartcher, who is set to feature in the next ICAC inquiry into political donations starting on April 28, is putting questions to the premier.
O’Farrell says he doesn’t recall Hartcher being a proponent of Australian Water’s PPP plan.
The inquiry has heard allegations that Australian Water made “regular payments” to a slush fund linked to Hartcher in exchange for favourable treatment from the former minister
O’Farrell’s own brief, John Agius, SC, is now putting questions to his client. Agius was counsel assisting the 1990s Wood Royal Commission into police corruption.
He asks O’Farrell about his phone call to Australian Water boss Nick Di Girolamo on April 20, 2011, around the time the newly-elected premier allegedly received the $3000 bottle of Grange from Di Girolamo.
The premier says that if he didn’t receive the gift – as is his contention – then he didn’t call Di Girolamo to thank him for it.
John Agius, SC, is asking the premier about his practice when it comes to declaring gifts on the pecuniary interests register.
“The practice is that I comply with those rules,” a rather brusque O’Farrell says.
Asked if he has ever been given a $3000 gift, O’Farrell says he doubts even his family has been so generous. He then makes a rather dad-joke reference to a garden hose he got one Christmas.
And then there is this exchange:
It’s being suggested security at Bof’s house was of a level where it’d be easy to steal a bottle of wine delivered when no one home #icac— Katie Kimberley (@KatieKimberley) April 15, 2014
Barry O’Farrell exits the witness box, the media pack in hot pursuit.
The man who allegedly gave him a $3000 bottle of Penfolds Grange and lobbied him over a PPP, former Australian Water boss Nick Di Girolamo, has resumed giving evidence.
The Premier is expected to make a statement outside the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
After studiously avoiding the media when he entered ICAC earlier this afternoon, Premier Barry O’Farrell is now using a room in the building for a press conference.
O’Farrell has become the fourth serving premier to give evidence at the commission, after Nick Greiner, John Fahey and Bob Carr.
Of course, ICAC has also heard from a string of former premiers this time around: Kristina Keneally, Nathan Rees and Morris Iemma.
O’Farrell will be fourth sitting Premier to face #icac Greiner (’92) (“Metherell”); Fahey (Jan 95) (“Smiles’ pension”); Carr (96) (“Semple”)— Stephen Murray (@smurray38) April 14, 2014
Barry O’Farrell’s post-ICAC press conference seems to be taking almost as long as his stint in the witness box.
Media waiting for Barry O’Farrell’s press conference re #grangegate#icacpic.twitter南京夜网/YkS4sGJnI9— Kate McClymont (@Kate_McClymont) April 15, 2014
O’Farrell tells the assembled media that he is “absolutely confident” that his government followed proper processes when dealing with Australian Water Holdings.
He says his north shore home was “unoccupied and unattended” at the time he allegedly received a $3000 bottle of Penfolds Grange in April 2011 from the then chief executive of the company, Nick Di Girolamo.
Asked about a phone call he made to Di Girolamo around this time, O’Farrell says: “I know nothing about the call.”
Today was to mark the last day of ICAC’s inquiry into Obeid-linked company Australian Water Holdings, which is now in its fifth week.
As Premier Barry O’Farrell leaves the inquiry, Commissioner Megan Latham says with some resignation that the inquiry will sit until at least lunch tomorrow.
That concludes our live blog. Thank you for reading.
See you at 10am tomorrow when former Australian Water boss Nick Di Girolamo will finish giving evidence #ICAC— Michaela Whitbourn (@MWhitbourn) April 15, 2014
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.