NSW energy minister Chris Hartcher. Photo: Louise Kennerley
The NSW government has been drawn into an alleged corruption scandal after investigators launched raids on the offices of central coast Liberal MPs Chris Spence and Darren Webber, removing computers and documents.
The raids by the Independent Commission Against Corruption are believed to be linked to allegations, revealed by Fairfax Media last year, that two staff members of NSW energy minister Chris Hartcher funnelled political donations through a front company before the 2011 state election.
Fairfax revealed that a $5000 donation under scrutiny was made out by a building firm owned by a local businessman, Matthew Lusted, to the benefit of the Liberal party's central coast candidates.
Liberal MP Chris Spence.
Mr Spence was the successful candidate for the seat of The Entrance at the 2011 election and Mr Webber won the neighbouring seat of Wyong. Mr Hartcher is the MP for the Central Coast seat of Terrigal and is known to control the area for the Liberals and keep a tight rein on local political campaigns.
Last year Mr Hartcher told parliament he was not under investigation in relation to the matter involving his two staff, but on Saturday declined to repeat the statement. ''The minister won't be making any comment,'' a spokeswoman said.
Neither Mr Spence nor Mr Webber responded to a request for comment.
Liberal MP Darren Webber.
Premier Barry O'Farrell said in a statement that he had not been contacted by ICAC and would not expect to be.
"I don't believe the ICAC has ever made it a practice to advise Premiers of visits by its staff involved in investigations," he said, adding: ''It is an offence for someone to confirm formal contact with them by the ICAC for the purposes of an investigation.''
Opposition leader John Robertson said Mr O'Farrell should suspend Mr Spence and Mr Webber.
"The Premier and his Minister for Energy Chris Hartcher need to come clean on what they knew about these donations, when they knew and what action they took,'' he said.
Greens MP John Kaye called for Mr Hartcher to be stood down by Mr O'Farrell.
"Mr Hartcher must either step aside or give a full account of his involvement in the Eightbyfive scandal,'' he said.
"In the absence of a full explanation from Premier O'Farrell as to why two of his central coast MPs have been raided and what he knows about Chris Hartcher's involvement, the minister has to be stood aside until the matter is resolved by ICAC.''
ICAC raided the electorate offices of Mr Spence and Mr Webber on Friday.
Last year Fairfax Media revealed that Tim Koelma, a senior policy adviser to Mr Hartcher and his Terrigal electorate officer Ray Carter, had been referred by the Liberal party to election funding authorities. Mr Koelma resigned shortly afterwards but Mr Carter has remained suspended on full pay pending the outcome of investigations into allegations against them.
The NSW Liberal party referred claims that they had breached funding laws to the Election Funding Authority.
It is understood that political donations to the NSW Liberals were being sought through a trust connected to Mr Koelma. A business name register to Mr Koelma, Eightbyfive, was the trading name for the trustee of the Koelma Trust.
Election funding records reveal that the $5000 donation was made by a Wyong building company, LA Commercial, shortly before the March 2011 election. The donation is believed to have been made through Eightbyfive.
The company's owner is Mr Lusted, who last year unsuccessfully contested Liberal preselection for the federal seat of Dobell, also on the Central Coast, then held by the disgraced former Labor MP Craig Thomson.
Mr Hartcher's preferred candidate, Karen McNamara, was installed after intervention by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, then the opposition leader.
Ms McNamara was elected to parliament at the September 7 federal election.
The Liberal party wrote to the Election Funding Authority on March 22 last year, alleging the breaches by Mr Koelma and Mr Carter.
Mr Koelma as previously said that he "operated a legitimate business and I have always acted appropriately''. On Saturday he stood by the statement.
Mr Lusted said at the time he believed he was entitled to make the donation as he was not a property developer for the purposes of the election funding act. Property developers have been banned from making political donations in NSW since 2009.