Allegations of systematic political donation rorting have engulfed the NSW Liberals and sent yet another party MP to the crossbench.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) on Monday aired claims Liberal figures had used a sham company to secretly funnel more than $400,000 in political donations in exchange for favours from sidelined cabinet minister Chris Hartcher.
Counsel assisting the inquiry, Geoffrey Watson, said the watchdog’s investigators had uncovered evidence of “sophisticated, well-organised and systematic subversion of the electoral funding laws” of NSW.
New Premier Mike Baird – who took the job two weeks ago, when Barry O’Farrell was forced to resign over a related ICAC probe – said he was appalled by allegations raised so far.
“If any wrongdoing is found, the book should, and will, be thrown at the perpetrators,” he said.
Central to ICAC’s Operation Spicer is alleged slush fund EightByFive, which was set up by Mr Hartcher’s former staffer Tim Koelma.
The company purported to offer marketing and strategic advice, Mr Watson said.
But its true role was to conceal political donations from property developers. These have been banned in NSW since 2009.
The inquiry has heard EightByFive received $66,000 from coal entrepreneur Nathan Tinkler’s Buildev, $137,000 from the Gazal family’s Gazcorp and $183,000 from the notorious Obeid-linked Australian Water Holdings (AWH).
One MP, upper house MP Marie Ficarra, who is said to have known about EightByFive, stepped down from the parliamentary Liberal Party on Monday at the premier’s request.
She follows MPs Darren Webber, Chris Spence and Mr Hartcher.
Mr Spence and Mr Webber ran as Liberal candidates on the central coast in 2011 and are said to have pocketed $105,000 and $50,000 apiece from EightByFive.
Another Liberal-linked outfit, the Free Enterprise Foundation, was allegedly used by some members of the Liberal Party to “wash” money from prohibited donors.
“The actions of these persons were a serious breach of the law and a serious breach of trust with the voters of NSW,” Mr Watson said.
In the lead-up to the 2011 election the Foundation donated $700,000 to the Liberal Party, he said.
Fundraiser Paul Nicolaou admitted in a private ICAC interrogation that he was aware of multiple examples of prohibited donors giving money to the Liberal Party via the Foundation.
On Monday Mr Nicolaou resigned as chair of a key fundraising entity, the Millennium Foundation, and the premier has signalled some donations may now be repaid.
“I have told the party’s new state director, as a matter of urgency, to investigate the allegations made at ICAC and respond to them promptly,” Mr Baird said.
Meanwhile, two sitting ministers are now under scrutiny.
Energy Minister Anthony Roberts was forced to issue a statement on Monday afternoon after it emerged he had accompanied Mr Hartcher on a 2007 trip to Queensland’s Whitsundays aboard Nabil Gazal’s luxury yacht, Octavia.
“I paid my own airfares and costs associated with my attendance,” Mr Roberts said.
“For these reasons, I understood at the time that I did not need to make a disclosure on my pecuniary interests register … I held no shadow portfolio responsibilities at the time.”
The inquiry continues on Tuesday.