'I don't recall' line of the day at NSW corruption hearing
John Atkinson arrives at the ICAC hearing in Sydney. Photo: Nicolas Walker
ON 31 occasions John Charles Atkinson, a former partner at global law firm Baker & McKenzie, told a corruption inquiry ''I don't recall''. And that was just before lunch.
Mr Atkinson didn't recall reading emails, letters, attending meetings or having conversations. So bad was his recollection that counsel assisting the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption suggested a doctor should be on standby.
''We have a really high rate of people who come here with bad memories,'' Geoffrey Watson, SC, said.
Mr Atkinson spent an arduous day in the witness box being grilled about whether he had failed in his duties as a director of a public company. In November 2010 Mr Atkinson was a director of White Energy, a company listed on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX). He and four other of White's directors - John Kinghorn, John McGuigan, Travers Duncan and Brian Flannery - were going to sell their privately owned company Cascade Coal to White Energy for $500 million, even though Cascade had been valued at only $25 million earlier that year.
The commission is investigating allegations that there was corruption involved in the granting of a coal exploration licence to Cascade in 2009. The commission is also investigating whether the then mining minister Ian Macdonald leaked confidential information to the family of controversial Labor MP Eddie Obeid that enabled them to buy up land in the Mount Penny area as well as take a 25 per cent stake in Cascade Coal, which won the tender to explore for coal at Mount Penny, near Mudgee in central NSW.
The commission had heard that none of the five White Energy directors who were involved in the related-party transaction involving the proposed sale of their company Cascade disclosed to the ASX, White Energy shareholders or the independent board members of White Energy a ''material fact'' that could render worthless the proposed $500 million acquisition.
The ''material fact'' was the presence of the Obeids in Cascade Coal. It was suggested to Mr Atkinson that if it was ever revealed to the public that the Obeids were involved in a company that had won a government tender there was a risk that the government would refuse to grant Cascade Coal a licence to mine at Mount Penny.
''I thought … it could have an impact on future regulatory approval,'' replied Mr Atkinson. He agreed he was aware that White Energy's independent board members had heard rumours that the Obeids were behind Cascade Coal.
''You went to great lengths, didn't you, to prevent the board from knowing the true facts in which it was going to make a decision … you remained silent about your knowledge of the Obeid involvement?'' said Mr Watson.
''Yes, that's correct,'' replied Mr Atkinson, who added that he did not tell the independent board because they did not ask. Concern about the exposure of the Obeids in Cascade led to the proposed acquisition by White being abandoned in April 2011.
At the end of Mr Atkinson's day in the box, Mr Watson foreshadowed that he would ''make a submission in due course'' that Mr Atkinson's ''faulty recollection is not genuine''.