Illustration: Simon Bosch
Sydney’s Olympic Stadium was completed ahead of schedule in 1999, long before the 2000 Olympics. There were no delays, no disruptions and no blowouts in the $690 million budget. The question is, was the charmed life of this project built on a $500,000 bribe paid to the Labor Party?
Only two people would know for sure. One is Sam Fiszman, who was legendary in NSW Labor circles as the party’s chief fund-raiser. He allegedly solicited and received the bribe. But he is dead, so we don't get his side of the story.
The other is the man who says he paid the bribe: Ian Widdup, then a senior executive at Multiplex. He is alive, though struggling, and pleading guilty to corruption. Widdup gave his version of events to the Independent Commission Against Corruption on Wednesday, during a private interview with ICAC investigating officers. He has also spoken to me at length about this and other matters.
Illustration: Simon Bosch.
''That stadium was built ahead of schedule because every bribe had been paid,'' he told me last week. He said Fiszman had asked him for $500,000, an enormous increase on the type of amounts he had previously provided.
''He told me if Multiplex paid $500,000 we would get the Olympic Stadium. I trusted him. He had enormous power in the party.''
They had a bagmen’s bond. For years Widdup has been paying bribes to the Construction Forestry Mining and Engineering Union, and giving donations to the Labor Party, above and below the table. Fiszman raised tens of millions of dollars for Labor.
They had never crossed each other, and Fiszman told him how the money would be laundered: ''I was to buy 2500 raffle tickets at $100 each, at a big function for some stooge Labor foundation. That’s $250,000. I paid it with my [American Express] black card. It set off the Amex security and I received a call. They wanted to confirm that I had just spent $250,000. I said it was fine and they hung up. That call came from America.''
Much of the remaining $250,000 was laundered by what Widdup described as Fiszman’s favourite ploy, ordering carpets. He had made a fortune as a carpet dealer but many of the carpets he sold did not exist. The money was in reality a donation to Labor. Widdup bought a lot of phantom carpets.
Widdup, who has leukemia, is also keen to be interviewed by the Royal Commission on Trade Union Governance and Corruption, headed by former High Court judge Dyson Heydon. It began its hearings last week.
He has already given hours of detailed evidence in court about bribes he paid to the CFMEU, during the case of Ballard v Multiplex and CFMEU. The judge, Robert McDougall, said he found Widdup’s evidence to lack credibility.
But McDougall never heard Widdup’s evidence. He never saw him in court. Never asked him a question. He came to the case late, after witnesses had completed giving evidence, because the presiding judge, Rex Smart, had suffered a mild stroke and was removed from the case.
''I wasn’t lying in court,'' Widdup told me. ''I was engaged in corrupt behaviour.'' There is much more to his story that could be followed up by investigators.
Back in June 2001, the Herald nibbled at the edges of the big picture with a front-page report that began: ''Australian political parties are taking donations from people with highly dubious backgrounds ... A Herald investigation of donations since 1994 reveals that the parties are still engaging in suspect fund-raising practices and exploiting serious deficiencies in the electoral laws ...
''NSW Labor failed to declare its share of $75,000 raised from the Star City casino through an auction at a fund-raising dinner ... At least a dozen major companies have each donated more than $1 million to political parties since 1994, half of them from the property development and construction industries.''
The Herald published the confidential guest list of a Labor fund-raiser at which $450,000 was raised. It included ''VIP tables'' purchased by Multiplex Construction and Leightons.
In 2000, Fiszman was honoured at a gala dinner attended by numerous Labor luminaries. He told an arresting story. In 1948, when he was 21 and on his way to Australia aboard the SS Derna, filled with refugees, he was seething with hatred for the Germans and Fascism. He got into a fight with an Estonian over anti-Semitism. They fought on the deck and he shoved the Estonian over the railing. The man was not seen again.
When the ship docked at Fremantle, immigration officials refused to allow Fiszman to disembark. They cited the man overboard incident and a petition by passengers saying he had been spreading communist propaganda. A NSW Labor politician, Syd Einfeld, intervened. He contacted the Chifley Labor government in Canberra and Fiszman was allowed entry. A lifelong bond with the Labor Party was forged.
In Fiszman’s obituary published in the Herald in 2002, a friend wrote: ''In Australia Fiszman turned his hand to business, building his small carpet company, Univers Carpets, into a multimillion-dollar endeavour ... He repaid Einfield's support by serving ... on the Australian Tourism Commission from 1987-97, was chairman of Tourism NSW and chair of the NSW Major Events Board at the time of his death. He also worked on the Darling Harbour Board in the critical Olympic period of 1995-2001.''
This is how politics works in Sydney. Not just money is laundered but also reputations.
It would be useful if Widdup was given the chance to have his credibility tested by the Heydon royal commission, with its immense latent potential to finally map the dark side of Australian politics.
Correction: The original version of this story quoted Sam Fiszman as saying he was to buy 2500 raffle tickets at $10, rather than $100, each.