Corruption investigators have heard projects sought by a ‘pesky’ MP who was in a secret relationship with Gladys Berejiklian were given special priority.
A top bureaucrat has told corruption investigators he chose to give Gladys Berejiklian updates on money sought by a “pesky backbencher” because he had the impression the project was a priority for the then-NSW Premier.
Bureaucrat Gary Barnes told the Independent Commission Against Corruption on Wednesday he thought the MP “had the ear” of Ms Berejiklian – but what he didn’t know at the time was that the backbencher was in a relationship with the premier.
Mr Barnes, who was the deputy secretary of the department of Regional NSW at the time, had a hand in moving along two money requests sought by Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire for projects in his area.
Neither project was considered by bureaucrats as clearly beneficial to the people of the state, and the second one, which would fund a music hall in Wagga Wagga, ended up having most of the money promised to it withdrawn.
Mr Barnes said he believed he was told by a staffer in then-deputy premier John Barilaro’s office in 2017 that Mr Maguire was “well-regarded by the premier“ because he was a Liberal politician with a good understanding of the regions.
“I seem to remember that someone in the deputy premier’s office had told me that Daryl was well regarded by the premier, as a person that understood the bush, as a liberal party person, and that he had the ear of the premier,” Mr Barnes said.
The two Wagga Wagga funding requests – $5.5 million for a gun club and $30 million for the music hall – were both considered a “particular priority” by the premier’s office, Mr Barnes said.
However it seemed to him at the time the gun club funding, which was discussed extensively by the ICAC last week, was an even bigger priority.
The music funding, for a private non-profit organisation called Riverina Conservatorium of Music, was split up in two grants.
The first, worth $10 million, was approved to relocate the conservatorium from a university campus to a site owned by the state government.
A separate tranche of $20 million for a recital hall became a by-election promise in the Liberal party’s campaign to retain the seat of Wagga Wagga after Mr Maguire was forced to resign in 2018.
The MP quit politics after being caught allegedly giving false evidence to a separate ICAC inquiry in July that year.
Despite issuing a press release during the by-election campaign saying the government had “committed” $20 million for a new recital hall, the Liberal party lost the seat to an independent candidate.
The money, which had been reserved from a government fund, was made available for other projects earlier this year after it was determined the business case for the recital hall didn’t stack up.
The ICAC is investigating allegations Ms Berejiklian breached the public’s trust in the course of her relationship with Mr Maguire.
The allegations include whether she had a conflict of interest when she helped award money to Wagga Wagga without disclosing the relationship.
She has previously denied all wrongdoing and said she always acted with integrity. Ms Berejiklian is scheduled to begin testifying on Friday, a day after Mr Maguire.