"Who is ICAC?’’ former billionaire coalminer Nathan Tinkler texted his employee Darren Williams in April last year on learning that an investigator from the corruption watchdog had visited his offices.
If he did not know then, Tinkler certainly knows now. He will be one of the most watched witnesses to appear before the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption as it continues with its sensational Operation Spicer inquiry, which is lifting the lid on the realpolitik of political donations.
Tinkler was due to appear and expected to answer questions about a $66,000 donation made to the shadowy company Eightbyfive, which was run out of the offices of former state Liberal resources minister Chris Hartcher. But within days the inquiry has spread to the former Labor NSW government and to current Liberal police minister Mike Gallacher, who resigned on Friday, and potentially even further.
One of the common threads is Tinkler, the Hunter Valley billionaire who once owned interests in developer Buildev, the Maules Creek coalmine and Ashton Mining and had plans to build a coal loader in Newcastle.
He also owned one of the biggest horse studs in the Hunter, Patinack Farm, and was financier of the Newcastle Knights rugby league team.
Nowadays he is being chased by a bevy of creditors. But, in 2011, he was riding high and, according to counsel assisting ICAC, Geoffrey Watson, SC, he was a central figure in corrupt schemes to win political support for his projects.
On the Liberal side, it is a donation of $66,000 ostensibly made by Patinack Farm to Eightbyfive, run by Hartcher’s office by staffer Tim Koelma, that is being questioned.
Watson has alleged that it was nothing other than a slush fund. Executives from Buildev have insisted it was a marketing company engaged to do work for Patinack Farm.
But as the inquiry proceeded last week, chains of emails, text messages and phone records pointed to the conclusion that it was nothing more than an elaborate scheme by Buildev, which was prohibited as a developer from giving donations, to hide its contributions.
What the commission will want to know is whether Tinkler was the orchestrator of the scheme, what he wanted in return for his $66,000 and what was said at various meetings with state politicians including Hartcher, Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner and possibly former premier Barry O’Farrell.
Last week, former state Labor member for Newcastle Jodi McKay told ICAC that just before the 2011 state campaign, when she was facing an extremely tough fight to hold her seat, she had met Tinkler to discuss his support of the Newcastle Knights. McKay had earlier instituted a ban on talking to Tinkler about the coal loader after she had discovered, when a journalist pointed it out, that Tinkler had donated $50,000 to her campaign via head office in 2007. She told ICAC she felt compromised by that donation and resolved to distance herself from decisions on the coal project.
But, with the election looming in 2011, Tinkler made another offer of support. ‘‘He offered to donate to my campaign. I said, ‘You can’t, Nathan, you are a developer’,’’ she said. McKay told ICAC he replied: ‘‘I have hundreds of employees and I can get around the rules that way.’’
Asked if that sounded like a bribe, she replied: ‘‘It certainly felt like he wanted my support and he was prepared to buy it.’’
But more revelations were to come. McKay told ICAC she phoned the then treasurer and ports minister Eric Roozendaal to talk to him about the delay in approving the rival proposal for a container terminal, which she was supporting. She told ICAC that Roozendaal said in a soft voice, ‘‘Haven’t you spoken to Tinkler?’’
McKay said it became clear to her that Roozendaal knew about the attempted bribe.
‘‘I will not support what you are doing,’’ she said she yelled at him. ‘‘Don’t say things like that over the phone,’’ she said he replied. McKay reported the offer of a ‘‘donation’’ to ICAC, the police and the Election Funding Authority.
Tinkler’s barrister has already foreshadowed that he will deny the conversation with McKay about hiding donations ever took place. Tinkler will also face questions about his role in a flyer that began circulating just as the campaign kicked off in March, alleging that McKay was backing thousands of trucks travelling through local suburbs 365 days of the year.
On Thursday, Watson told her the dirt sheet had been traced to Tinkler, and former Labor colleagues, former sports minister Joe Tripodi and his eyes and ears in Newcastle, Anne Wills. It was too much for McKay and she burst into tears.
And what was Tinkler’s reaction when his staff informed him what ICAC was? He sent a text that ICAC has retrieved. ‘‘Oh, mate, you are f---ing kidding me. What have I ever had to do with this business, can’t trust anyone.’’
No doubt Tinkler will be as colourful when he appears before the commission.
The story Former Hunter Valley billionaire Nathan Tinkler to enlighten NSW corruption inquiry ICAC first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.