The head of Colliers ACT says the firm had "absolutely no conflict of interest" over almost $300,000 worth of work it did for the former Land Development Agency, stemming from the firm's unsolicited proposal to buy a swathe of rural land.
An audit into the now-defunct agency's rural land purchases across Canberra's western fringe found the arrangement between the prominent real estate firm and the agency lacked "transparency and accountability".
It also found that despite the LDA paying the firm some $298,045 in agents commissions for the purchases, no written agreement or pay order for the work was completed, the agency did not issue a public tender and "appropriate financial controls were not applied".
The audit office also found the agency's former chief executive, David Dawes, never told the agency's board the District of Stromlo acquisitions strategy paper was completed by the firm, unsolicited and free of charge.
If the board had been told of those facts when approving plans to start acquiring nine rural leases across the territory, the audit office wrote, it may have "facilitated the identification of a potential conflict of interest".
"It was incumbent on the former agency to provide all relevant information to the board; there is no written record that it did," the audit reads.
But Colliers ACT state chief executive Paul Powderly said there was "absolutely no conflict of interest" for the firm in completing the work it proposed to the agency, and the audit office did not specifically find the firm actually had a conflict of interest.
"From our point of view, there's absolutely no conflict of interest, a conflict would suggest there was a financial [interest], like if I owned one of the farms involved," he said.
The work Colliers ACT's state chief executive Paul Powderly did for the agency, as a "buyers agent and advisor on strategy" was one of the key issues examined in audit, which found the agency's actions across the purchases and management of contractors lacked probity, or "integrity, uprightness and honesty".
In September 2014, Mr Powderly sent the unsolicited strategy paper to Mr Dawes, a document the audit office found was the "catalyst" for the agency to start buying several rural properties across the Stromlo District.
Mr Powderly said the firm wrote the strategy for the rural purchases after a "detailed planning workshop about a year earlier", which he came out of believing the government could run out of land in about 20 to 30 years.
"We took it upon ourselves and created the strategy, now obviously the LDA thought it was a good idea, but the auditors don’t, we were thinking about these rural leases and some people were interested in selling," he said.
While the audit found Mr Powderly did not request any money for the original advice, the paper was later changed to include mention that Colliers would act as the agency's buyers agent in acquiring the properties, and would be paid under an existing panel contract.
But the audit office could not find any written evidence of the agency completing a pay order for any of Colliers' work on the purchases, or a public tender, or written justification of why the firm was selected for the work.
Asked by auditors what authority Mr Powderly had to send an offer letter to a rural leaseholder on behalf of the agency, Mr Dawes said that: "He must have been instructed by us. I can't recall".
Another former senior LDA executive told auditors he also could not recall ever having seen written advice for Colliers to act as the agency's buyers agent for the rural purchases between 2014 and 2017.
Mr Powderly said he did not believe it was unusual for the firm to do work for the agency without a formal tender process or written quote at the time.
"Under the previous system you could be appointed off the panel - now the [Suburban Land Agency] does one for every piece of work, but back in the early days you could just be appointed from the panel list," he said.
"We just submitted our invoice and it was paid at the end of the job."
Asked whether Colliers often worked for free for its clients, Mr Powderly said that was "just part of what we do, we identify opportunities and tell people we think might be interested about them".
"We are a part of the community and we do work for free for a number of organisations," he said.
"At the end of the day, I’m a taxpayer in Canberra and if I think there’s an opportunity for government to pursue, then I will give them my thoughts, advice or opinions without fear or favour; and on many occasions they say thanks very much, we're not pursuing that."
The audit report also said the audit was "not commenting on the credentials of Colliers International, but the lack of process regarding the actions of the former [agency]".