FORMER Labor minister Joe Tripodi has been accused of turning off his telephone when he drove to Wellington in central NSW last year to see his former cabinet colleague Tony Kelly to avoid being tracked by investigators from the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Counsel assisting the commission, Geoffrey Watson SC, said Mr Tripodi had turned off his phone at 8:04am on March 10 last year and turned it on at 6:25pm when he was on the Sydney side of the Blue Mountains.
He had driven 5½ hours so the pair could get their stories straight over a doctored cabinet minute, Mr Watson said — a minute that could have ended up with Australian Water Holdings winning a billion-dollar deal with the NSW government.
Mr Kelly put the minute forward, after Mr Tripodi had drafted it, using material from AWH.
Mr Tripodi yesterday denied he had deliberately turned his phone off to avoid being tracked, saying he found it on the back seat of the car when he stopped at service station on the way back.
After getting Mr Kelly’s address from NSW ALP head office, he had gone to Wellington to see Mr Kelly and to research a possible lucerne export deal for an associate, William Ning.
At this point, Mr Watson announced he had earlier handed a note to his junior counsel that read: “I bet you $2 that Tripodi says he went down to see Kelly for a hay deal involving some unnamed Chinese investors.”
He asked Mr Tripodi: “Pretty close, isn’t it? Where do you think we got that information from. I couldn’t have invented it, I’m not that clever. Where do you think we got that information from? It’s not true, is it?”
Asked if he was devastated to have driven 5½ hours there and 5½ hours back on a fruitless errand, he replied: “I went out to inform myself about it.”
Mr Tripodi agreed he quickly found out that it was not possible to profitably export hay as it was worth only $12 a bale. He agreed it wasn’t even economically feasible to move it from Wellington to Orange.
Why hadn’t he just rung Mr Kelly? “I can’t remember. I might have tried, I can’t remember … if he wasn’t home, I had other things to do.”
Mr Kelly told the commission Mr Tripodi turned up unannounced on his doorstep with a coffee and a hamburger. They had talked for about 20-30 minutes, mostly about how former parliamentary colleagues were going after politics. The subject of the cabinet minute had been only briefly raised, he said.
He said this was before the commission had approached him. It is illegal for witnesses before the commission to speak to anyone about their evidence.
Mr Tripodi was also asked about being picked up from a park in Fairfield West by a former staff member of Mr Tripodi, Rocco Leonello.
He denied he had arranged to meet in the park because he feared his phone was being tapped and he wanted to defeat ICAC investigators.
Earlier, Mr Kelly relied on his staff when he signed a highly misleading cabinet minute that could have led to Australian Water Holdings getting a billion-dollar contract to provide water and sewerage.
He said he read the cabinet minute, which reversed the recommendations of the Department of Premier and Cabinet to refuse a public-private partnership with AWH, with his chief of staff Laurie Brown standing beside him.
He said he questioned Mr Brown as he read it. When it came to a series of figures, he had asked him: “How do I know these are correct?”
Mr Brown had replied they were correct, but in any case when the minute went up to the budget sub-committee of cabinet they would be verified.
theaustralian.com.au 11 Apr 2014