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Metgasco project referred to ICAC as links to Obeid family emerge

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Sean Nicholls, Nicole Hasham, Kate McClymont

Links have emerged between controversial businessman Nick Di Girolamo and Metgasco's largest shareholder.

Links have emerged between controversial businessman Nick Di Girolamo and Metgasco's largest shareholder. Photo: James Brickwood

Resources company Metgasco's gas drilling operation on the NSW north coast was referred to corruption authorities as links emerged between its largest shareholder and the family of disgraced former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid, and controversial businessman Nick Di Girolamo.

On Thursday, NSW Energy Minister Anthony Roberts announced he had suspended Metgasco's exploration licence at Bentley, near Lismore, due to a lack of community consultation.

Mr Roberts also said he had referred the project to the Independent Commission Against Corruption "following receipt of information concerning shareholdings and interests in Metgasco Limited".

The chairman of Metgasco's largest shareholder, ERM Power, is Tony Bellas, who is in business with Eddie Obeid's nephew, Dennis Jabour. Both are shareholders in the Queensland company Gasfields Waste Water and Services, of which Mr Jabour is the sole director.

Until March last year, Mr Bellas was also a director of Australian Water Queensland, a subsidiary of infrastructure company Australian Water Holdings, whose activities are the subject of current ICAC investigations.

Eddie Obeid jnr, the son of Mr Obeid, worked for Australian Water Queensland. The ICAC has heard that from 2009 Mr Obeid jnr led AWH's push into the Queensland market.

Among Mr Bellas's fellow directors on the Australian Water Queensland board were Mr Di Girolamo, a former lobbyist and Liberal party fundraiser who was chief executive of AWH.

Mr Di Girolamo's gift of a $3000 bottle of Penfolds Grange Hermitage to former NSW premier Barry O'Farrell led to his resignation after Mr O'Farrell gave false evidence about it to the ICAC.

Australian Water Queensland was shut down due to negative publicity about the involvement on the board of a Queensland lobbyist, Wayne Myers. A new company, Gasfields Waste Water and Services, was set up early last year.

Former Gasfields shareholders include Mr Obeid jnr, Mr Di Girolamo and the current director-general of the Queensland department of premier and cabinet, Jon Grayson, who only ceased to have an interest two weeks ago.

On Thursday, Mr Bellas said he was "incredulous" about the referral to the ICAC if its was due to his links with Mr Di Girolamo and Mr Obeid jnr.

"We have nothing to do with Metgasco's operation, we're just a shareholder," Mr Bellas said.

Asked about the nature of his association with Mr Di Girolamo and Mr Obeid jnr, Mr Bellas replied: "I'd prefer not to comment on either, because they are before the ICAC."

Metgasco's license to explore for coal seam and conventional gas resources in northern NSW was first granted to Carlita Holdings in November 1996, when the Carr Labor government was in power.

Peter Gray, a high-profile stockbroker, was a director and secretary of Carlita Holdings and was later revealed as an investor in Cascade Coal, a company at the centre of an ICAC inquiry involving Mr Obeid snr and another former Labor resources minister, Ian Macdonald, last year.

The ICAC found Cascade Coal paid $30 million to the family of Mr Obeid to buy out part of their stake in a mining joint venture over the Obeids' Bylong Valley farm.

ICAC found Mr Macdonald acted corruptly in creating a mining tenement at Mount Penny in the Bylong Valley over land owned by the Obeid family.

In his final report, the ICAC found Mr Macdonald expressly reopened a tender to enable Cascade Coal to put in a bid, which it subsequently won. 

Mr Gray was not accused of any wrongdoing.

In August 1999, the north coast exploration license, known as PEL 16, was transferred from Carlita Holdings to Metgasco, when Mr Obeid snr was Minister for Mineral Resources. Mr Obeid renewed the licence in 2000 and it was again renewed by Mr Macdonald in 2006.

The licence was most recently renewed last year, under former Liberal resources minister Chris Hartcher. Mr Hartcher is currently the subject of an ICAC inquiry involving Australian Water Holdings.

He and fellow state MPs Chris Spence and Darren Webber are accused of soliciting donations to an alleged slush fund, including from AWH, in return for political favours.

Metgasco shares went into a trading halt on Thursday morning. In a statement, the company said it was "confident that it is in compliance with the PEL 16 licence conditions and is seeking to demonstrate this to government".

The chief executive, Peter Henderson, declined to comment further.

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