Corruption investigators have grilled a top staffer who was among the first people in NSW parliament to learn about Gladys Berejiklian’s tryst with an MP.
A former top political staffer in Gladys Berejiklian’s office has revealed he was one of the first people in parliament to find out the then-NSW premier was in a secret relationship with an MP.
Neil Harley, who was Ms Berejiklian’s final chief of staff as premier, told the Independent Commission Against Corruption about the “difficult” conversation where his boss told him about her relationship with ex-Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire.
Mr Harley said Ms Berejiklian broke the news to him after she got her first summons to give testimony before the ICAC, which she did in a secret interview in August 2020.
“It was a very difficult discussion about a very private matter for the former premier, who is inherently a very private person,” Mr Harley said on Tuesday.
“We talked in terms of the nature of the relationship and the fact it went beyond what you might normally regard as a relationship between a premier and other members of parliament.”
When Ms Berejiklian took the public witness stand at the ICAC in October 2020, she stunned many of her closest colleagues when she told the commission she had been in a “close personal relationship” with Mr Maguire.
None of the witnesses who have fronted the current set of ICAC hearings, other than Mr Harley, have said they were aware of the relationship before Mr Berejiklian’s public testimony.
Former deputy premier John Barilaro previously told the ICAC “no one” in parliament or the government‘s offices would have guessed Ms Berejiklian and Mr Maguire were in a relationship.
Mr Harley was quizzed on whether he was left with the impression the relationship had ended shortly or long before his conversation with Ms Berejiklian.
“I took it to (have ended) in the distant past, but that was just my impression … we didn’t go into details about when it commenced or when it finished,” he told the ICAC.
The ICAC heard the relationship began at least as early as the 2015 general election.
Ms Berejiklian told the ICAC last October she “made clear” to Mr Maguire the relationship was over in August 2020, following her summons to the private interview.
She told the commission she didn’t immediately break off communication with Mr Maguire, because she thought that would tip him off to the fact she had been summoned for the ICAC interview.
The ICAC interview was subject to a suppression order that was subsequently lifted. She said they last communicated in September that year.
When cross-examined by Ms Berejiklian’s barrister on Tuesday, Mr Harley praised his former boss and said she never treated Mr Maguire differently from any other MP.
“The community has always come first for premier Berejiklian – I have never, ever in my time in politics known a person more committed, more fiercely committed to public service,” Mr Harley said.
Mr Harley was also asked about $20 million in taxpayer funds that were promised to a music organisation in Wagga Wagga as part of a by-election commitment in 2018.
The grant to the Riverina Conservatorium of Music was known as a “wish list item” of Mr Maguire’s, and Ms Berejiklian was “pushing” for the project, the ICAC heard.
The commission heard Mr Maguire’s knowledge of local community priorities, as a longstanding member, was valuable to the Liberal party officials planning the by-election campaign – even though it was his resignation as a result of a previous ICAC investigation that had sparked the Wagga Wagga by-election.
As state Liberal Party leader Ms Berejiklian would have had the ultimate say in what commitments the government should make as part of its by-election campaign.
Mr Harley was shown an August 2018 email in which he wrote: “I personally don’t want to push this project but the premier did”.
The conservatorium, which had earlier been granted $10 million, never got the $20 million it was promised during the by-election campaign.
The money was promised subject to certain conditions which were never met, so the $20 million was returned to the fund it was taken from earlier this year, Mr Barilaro told the commission on Monday.
Mr Harley is one of a trio of former top staffers for Ms Berejiklian who have been called to testify on Tuesday.
Another former chief of staff, Sarah Cruickshank, and staffer Brad Burden will also give testimony.
Prior to Tuesday’s testimony commencing, Ms Berejiklian’s barrister Sophie Callan, SC complained to the commission that her client’s testimony had been pushed back to finish on Monday, rather than Friday when it was initially scheduled to finish.
As the current witness list stands, Mr Maguire is scheduled to testify on Thursday and Ms Berejiklian on Friday and Monday.
The ICAC is investigating allegations including whether Ms Berejiklian breached the public’s trust when she helped Mr Maguire acquire funds for projects in his electorate without disclosing the relationship.
Another allegation being explored is whether Ms Berejiklian failed in her obligation to report suspicion of corrupt conduct by Mr Maguire.
His conduct as an MP was scrutinised by the ICAC last year in a probe that found he had monetised his position in parliament.
A third allegation being investigated is whether Ms Berejiklian engaged in conduct that could “encourage” Mr Maguire’s allegedly corrupt dealings.
Ms Cruickshank gave evidence last year in an ICAC hearing focused on a planned China trip by Mr Maguire whom she referred to as a “random MP”.
Her evidence came the week before Ms Berejiklian’s public testimony.
Ms Berejiklian has not yet given evidence about the allegations against her, but has previously denied all wrongdoing and said she always acted with integrity in office.
None of her staffers have been accused of wrongdoing.
More to come.