Gladys’ $255k pork barrelling exposed
Gladys Berejiklian dipped into an alleged "slush fund" to give a Liberal candidate running for election in Wagga Wagga a $255,000 boost using taxpayer money, a parliamentary committee has heard.
The NSW Premier has been under pressure to explain the handling of the $252 million Stronger Communities Fund since an opposition analysis found 95 per cent of funds went to projects in Coalition-held seats.
On Wednesday, it was revealed a quarter-of-a-million dollars in funding announced during the candidacy of a Liberal candidate - who ultimately failed to capture the electorate of Wagga Wagga during the 2018 by-election - was taken out of the Stronger Communities Fund on the Premier's personal request.
The funding was announced by the Premier on August 17, 2018 in a press release filed on the Liberal Party website under a candidate page for Julia Ham, the party's contender for the seat that opened up after Daryl Maguire's resignation earlier that year over corruption allegations.
"Premier Gladys Berejiklian today announced $255,000 in funding to deliver a range of much-needed tourism projects in the historic former gold mining town of Adelong," the press release read.
The release also included quotes from Ms Ham and a video where she is seen standing next to Snowy Valley Council Mayor James Hayes, who is heard thanking the Liberal government and urging residents to support Ms Ham.
Though the funds were announced in the heat of the campaign, the money wasn't formally requested by the council until months later.
A council official emailed the Office of Local Government, which was the government body formally responsible for the Stronger Communities Fund, on December 12, 2018 to detail requests for money out of the fund.
An attached spreadsheet shows the $255,000 as "Funding Announced by Premier for ADELONG 17 August 2018".
Other documents produced to the committee showed the actual funding agreement between the council and the Office of Local Government wasn't signed until February 2019 - nearly six months after the Premier's announcement.
A trio of former top ministerial staffers appeared before the NSW upper house's Public Accountability Committee on Wednesday to answer questions on the Stronger Communities Fund.
Laura Clarke, former deputy chief of staff in Deputy Premier John Barilaro's office, and Matthew Crocker, former policy adviser in the Office of the Premier, were asked why Ms Berejiklian announced the Snowy Valley funds during the by-election, despite the council being in a regional area that ordinarily would have been the remit of Mr Barilaro.
"I'm not aware, you'd have to ask the Premier," Ms Clarke said.
"I was not in charge of announcements in local electorates," Mr Crocker said.
Kevin Wilde, former chief of staff in the Local Government Minister's office, was asked what his role was in determining whether a grant would be allocated by the Deputy Premier or the Premier.
"Nothing," he responded.
Large parts of the money in the Stronger Communities Fund were doled out ahead of the 2019 state election, and Ms Berejiklian has for months fended off accusations it was little more than a "slush fund" used to buy votes.
After briefing notes were previously deleted by her office, and then recovered and handed over to the committee, Ms Berejiklian surprised even some people in her own circle by saying her government "will wear" the pork-barrelling accusation.
She defended the practice as "not illegal" and said the use of public money to "curry favour" with voters is something all politicians do.
"I think that's part of the political process whether you like it or not," the Premier previously said.
The committee also revealed the Premier last month declined a request for her to give testimony about the grants program.
A director in the Office of the Premier wrote to committee chair David Shoebridge of the NSW Greens party on November 20 to decline on the Premier's behalf, saying members could instead question her during budget estimates hearings next year.
The state government is being sought for comment.
Originally published as Gladys' $255k pork barrelling exposed