Former NSW Energy Minister Chris Hartcher is facing jaw-dropping allegations which involve serious criminality. Photo: Sasha Woolley
From Black Ops and bribery to the difficulties of drawing blood from a schnauzer, the current corruption inquiry Operation Spicer has had everything.
It has also had a sinister undertone that money and immorality are deadly combination which, when exercised together, can have a profound effect of our democratic process.
This is what has been truly shocking about this Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiry. In 2009 property tycoons were banned from donating to political parties for the simple reason that, in the public's eye, those donations created an obligation for the recipient.
But for some wealthy property tycoons the ban has meant nothing. When the Liberal Party looked as though it was likely to win government, those funds flowed their way. And it wasn't just politicians such as former energy minister Chris Hartcher who were happy to put their cap out.
Evidence given before the commission reveals the NSW Liberals’ chief fund-raiser, Paul Nicolaou, was happy to uses the little-known Free Enterprise Foundation, which was based in Canberra, to “wash” banned donations and return them to the NSW branch of the party.
The repercussions of the shocking evidence are being felt far beyond the windowless hearing room on the seventh floor of the Stocklands building in Castlereagh Street.
For years the NSW Labor Party appeared to have a monopoly on political corruption. But the allegations of political skulduggery and treachery which have been aired at the ICAC during this inquiry have rocked the Liberal Party.
Among the jaw-dropping allegations are some which involve serious criminality. Hartcher, a former solicitor, stands accused of taking three cheques which had been made out to the NSW Liberal Party and depositing them in the trust account of his old law firm Hartcher Reid. He then instructed his nephew Simon Reid, a solicitor at the firm, to move the money into an account operated by the Thai boyfriend of his long-time staffer Ray Carter.
Carter has given evidence that he then returned the money to Mr Hartcher. While we are yet to hear from Mr Hartcher, on the face of it he has been involved in money-laundering, a jailable offence.
Another potential criminal offence was committed by Tim Koelma, another former Hartcher staffer. Hartcher is accused of being the mastermind behind Koelma’s "sham" PR company, Eightbyfive, which was used to hide banned donations.
It is a criminal offence to knowingly make a false allegation to ICAC, of which Koelma stands accused.
"Yay, Black Ops", writes Koelma is an email to this brother Eric, instructing him on delivering an anonymous complaint to ICAC in 2010. The complaint made baseless allegations designed to ruin the careers of the then head of Sydney Water Kerry Schott and a senior executive, Ron Quill. The commission has heard that the words were provided to him by Nick Di Girolamo.
The latter wanted Schott and Quill sidelined because they were standing in the way of his company, Australian Water Holdings, winning a billion-dollar partnership with the government. Di Girolamo had channelled $183,000 through Eightbyfive and it seems he was keen to get a bang for his buck.
It was former Labor MP Jodi McKay who provided the human face to the tragic consequences when democracy is for sale. The Newcastle politician paid a very high price for refusing to accept donations from coal magnate Nathan Tinkler, who wanted to build a container terminal in Newcastle.
McKay wept when she heard her colleague Joe Tripodi, the former ports minister, had used money from the Tinkler Group to run a damaging campaign against her. Unwittingly accepting Tinkler’s tainted funds has brought no joy to McKay’s successor, the Liberals’ Tim Owen, who has announced he will not recontest the next election.
His wife, Charlotte Thaarup-Owen, posted on Facebook that her husband had gone into politics with the best of intentions but will leave disappointed and angry.
"When we do the wrong thing, we not only violate ourselves and our own integrity but we also tarnish those close to us with our poor choices," she wrote. "Perhaps the worst thing is that we contribute to general mistrust and disillusionment in society in general, this is not what the world needs!"