Explosive evidence Gladys’ office destroyed

 

Documents the NSW Premier's office tried to destroy relating to a grants scandal have been forensically recovered and are set to be handed over to a pork-barrelling probe.

The documents, obtained by NCA NewsWire, reveal the Premier's staff directly decided which projects would be funded under the Stronger Community Fund grants program, a more hands-on level of involvement than Gladys Berejiklian and her office have previously let on.

They also reveal a snap decision to change the program's guidelines was made in part so money could be funnelled to settle a legal fight between two councils in a Liberal-held area of Sydney.

And there are also references to other ministers and Liberal members getting involved to steer funding to councils in their electorates.

Ms Berejiklian has been under pressure to explain the handling of the $252 million fund since an opposition analysis found 95 per cent of funds went to projects in Coalition-held seats on the eve of the 2019 state election.

 

The three documents, so-called working advice notes, were made by the Premier's senior policy adviser Sarah Lau in 2018, as the government was preparing to allocate money from the program, which was set up the previous year to support merged councils.

Ms Lau was grilled by the NSW upper house's inquiry into the fund last month by Labor and Greens MPs eager to find out how those allocation decisions were made.

The probe heard the Premier had used working advice notes prepared for her to indicate her approval of the funding decisions. But those notes were now gone, Ms Lau said, and the only records that remained of the Premier's involvement were email summaries she wrote to Local Government NSW chief Tim Hurst.

"It is likely that they would have been shredded," Ms Lau said of the notes, adding that electronic copies were also deleted in line with her "normal record management practices".

A detail from one of the working advice notes recovered after being deleted by Gladys Berejiklian's staff.
A detail from one of the working advice notes recovered after being deleted by Gladys Berejiklian's staff.

Those electronic copies are the ones that have now been recovered from computer system backups after an order by the upper house.

The notes bear the letterhead of the Office of the Premier and have Ms Lau's name printed in bold up top.

They contain short, bullet point summaries of the issues at hand, recommendations for actions by the Premier, and a space for the Premier to comment or circle the words "Approved/Noted/Not Approved".

Any such comments would have been made on the hard copies that were shredded, rather than on the electronic copies recovered.

All three documents contain references to Hornsby Shire Council, a local government area in Energy Minister Matt Kean's electorate that has received a lot of attention during the unfolding grants scandal because it received a whopping $90 million, more than a third of the total funds.

One note, dated April 10, reveals Hornsby Shire Council had a meeting with Ms Lau, Mr Kean, and the Premier's then-policy director Matthew Crocker in which the council requested funding up to $295 million, including $150-160 million in "cash compensation".

Mr Crocker wrote in a comment at the bottom of the document: "In terms of funding - there is no obvious other source of funding for these projects other than the $160m we had set aside from the merger funds.

"Otherwise, this will be a discussion with Dom on Budget funding," Mr Crocker continued, referring to NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet.

Sarah Lau was grilled by the NSW upper house’s inquiry into the Stronger Community Fund last month. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Bianca De Marchi
Sarah Lau was grilled by the NSW upper house’s inquiry into the Stronger Community Fund last month. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Bianca De Marchi

 

"This package would be larger than our entire open spaces package - and we would be spending more on delivering sports fields and facilities in Hornsby than we are planning for the rest of Sydney for the next four years," he concluded.

In a separate working advice note, Ms Lau wrote to the Premier to inform her that $90 million had been allocated to Hornsby Shire Council - $50 million to upgrade sports and recreation facilities at Hornsby Quarry, and $40 million for upgrading sports grounds at the Westleigh Sydney Water site.

However, since Hornsby wasn't eligible to receive money from the Stronger Communities Fund, Ms Lau suggested changing the guidelines to encompass "councils subject to a merger proposal, not just councils which were merged".

Changing the guidelines would solve another problem, too.

At the time, the Premier's office was keeping an eye on a dispute which saw Parramatta City Council threatening to drag Hornsby Shire Council in front of a court to settle a fight over several million dollars in rates owed.

Ms Lau recommended Ms Berejiklian approve a $16 million giveaway for a new water park in the Parramatta City Council area.

"Parramatta has indicated they will consider dropping their legal action on the s. 94 contributions owned (sic) to them if this funding is provided," Ms Lau wrote.

In a later working advice note, Ms Lau informed the Premier that Parramatta had backed away from the threat "on the basis they will receive $16m".

"(Now-Finance Minister) Damien Tudehope and (now-Customer Service Minister Victor) Dominello are both very supportive of this project," Ms Lau continued.

The guidelines were changed on June 27 and Hornsby Shire Council was offered the $90 million the same day.

In the note from April 10, Ms Lau references the Premier's "instruction" to progress funding for councils.

"As per your instruction, we are now progressing the other Council claims out of this funding," Ms Lau wrote.

Ms Berejiklian has repeatedly avoided answering questions in parliament about her level of involvment in allocation decisions and her knowledge of the document shredding.

"I acknowledge the interest that those opposite have in this important grants process," Ms Berejiklian responded earlier this month during one of the numerous heated question time sessions where the issue was brought up

"Very pleasingly, since we've been in government, we've provided billions and billions of dollars to local councils ... And I say to the Leader of the Opposition, which of those grants that have been provided to councils does she think shouldn't be provided to those councils?"

Gladys Berejiklian with MP Mark Coure and then-Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton announcing $9.5 million in funds delivered to Mr Coure's electorate on June 28, 2018, a day after the guidelines were changed. Source: Facebook
Gladys Berejiklian with MP Mark Coure and then-Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton announcing $9.5 million in funds delivered to Mr Coure's electorate on June 28, 2018, a day after the guidelines were changed. Source: Facebook

Another one of the working advice notes shows that Anthony Roberts, then the state Housing Minister, and the Liberal members Mark Coure and John Sidoti had requested changes to funding offers to their electorates, requests which required the Premier's attention.

Alongside the briefing notes, the Premier's office will also supply several chains of emails to the upper house.

One such previously unreported email thread shows a discussion among the Premier's staff on how to inform councils they had been allocated funds, given several of them were already decided before the guidelines were changed.

"Because the funding guidelines are an attachment to every funding agreement, we cannot issue any of them to councils (even Mid-Coast which has already been announced) until we get the final guidelines approved," Mr Hurst wrote to Ms Lau on June 15, 2018.

Ms Lau replied saying the problem could be solved by keeping the funding agreements "in-confidence".

She also added a suggestion about how to spin the grants to the press: "On the metro media releases, we are trying to explicitly not link the funding to the merger process, so releases should be framed around more open space and rec facilities."

The Premier's office's handling of the working advice notes is also the subject of a probe by the State Archives and Records Authority.

"The complaint raised provides a sufficient basis and meets the threshold … to commence a record-keeping assessment," the body previously wrote in a statement.

Originally published as Explosive evidence Gladys' office destroyed



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