At the Bittersweet Cafe in Kingston on September 18, 2020, two executives from Canberra construction firm Manteena sat down with two Education Directorate officials.
Manteena had been one of two companies shortlisted for a modernisation project at the ageing Campbell Primary School campus. An asbestos-riddled building had been demolished in 2018 and the school was sorely in need of a new permanent building.
Manteena boss Mark Bauer was puzzled as to why his company had missed out on the tender. They had spent more than $200,000 putting it together and had faced an unexpected best and final offer round.
The company was told there were "long-term factors" that meant the other tenderer, multinational firm Lendlease, was chosen instead of Manteena.
But suspicions were raised when Manteena had an anonymous phone call on June 29, 2020. The caller said the decision was wrong and that "heads should roll".
Finally, after months of delay, they were face-to-face with John Green, a pseudonym for the man who wrote the recommendation to Education director-general Katy Haire that Manteena should not win the tender.
At the Bittersweet Cafe - "Not chosen for the ironic reason of that name" as Mr Green would say later - he spilled the beans on the real reason they missed out.
While Mr Green may have thought this was the end of the Campbell Primary School saga, it was only just the beginning.
It has taken two audits and an extensive investigation in the ACT Integrity Commission to get to the bottom of what went down in this procurement process.
While the final report is still some weeks away, the public hearings have shone a light on some significant failures on the part of the ACT Education Directorate.
Mr Green revealed in the cafe that day that Manteena was not liked by the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union, and their name had been used "in guttural terms" to the Education Minister and others in the territory government.
CFMEU officials were unhappy Manteena had an enterprise agreement directly with their workers and had rebuffed attempts from the union to negotiate. They claimed this went against the spirit of new regulations, known as the Secure Local Jobs Code. As part of the code, firms that went for government contracts had to have a certificate to show they treated workers ethically. The union believed this included ensuring workers knew of their collective bargaining rights.
In Mr Green's version of events, he got the message from his superiors that the Education Minister's office did not want Manteena to get the job. He also held the view Lendlease was the superior contractor for this type of work.
After a discussion with Ms Haire, Mr Green prepared a brief that went against the scoring of two separate tender evaluation teams.
Education Minister Yvette Berry told the commission she was aware by late 2019 that the CFMEU disliked Manteena, but could not say where she got this knowledge from.
Her chief of staff at the time, Joshua Ceramidas, was not called by the commissioner to give evidence.
The union had drafted a letter to the directorate to complain about Manteena's track record on secure local jobs, but the letter was never sent.
Rumours of union interference had been circulating in certain circles of the ACT government public service and it was only a matter of time until those rumours were found out.
Manteena filed a freedom of information request which uncovered a note from a member of the first tender evaluation team Kelly Young. She resigned from the team after she realised Mr Green was not going to accept the team's recommendation to start negotiating with Manteena to reduce the costs of the project. Instead, Mr Green wanted to go to a best and final offer round where both tenderers would have the chance to resubmit their bids.
When Manteena got the news they had missed out on the contract in June 2020, Ms Young phoned Mr Bauer and suggested to him that they had come out on top in the scoring. She intimated he ought to lodge a freedom of information request to uncover the truth.
This freedom of information request uncovered a note that Ms Young had sent to herself in an email on March 13, 2020: "Phone conversation with Phil Morton this morning that the Minister for Education may have been approached by the Unions and asked why Manteena is getting all the jobs and this may be why 'John Green' is pushing for a BAFO where Manteena should be obvious preferred tenderer over Lendlease."
This set alarm bells off for Education Directorate executives. They commissioned law firm Sparke Helmore to do an audit of the Campbell procurement and shortly after this, the ACT Auditor-General's office started its own audit.
The procurement process was plagued with instances where meetings and decisions were not recorded properly. At some point Ms Haire became the decision-maker on the tender, not Mr Green, but there was no documentation around how and why the switch was made.
The reasons for going to the best and final offer process instead of going with the clear front runner - Manteena scored 79 out of 100 and Lendlease scored 52 - was similarly murky.
Key conversations and meetings involving Mr Green, Ms Haire and Mr Ceramidas were not minuted or noted in any detail. With the passage of time and haziness of memories amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we will never know what exactly was said.
This was in contrast to the somewhat detailed notes produced by Manteena. Every phone call and meeting with a government official was documented either at the time or immediately afterwards.
Defend and deny
The commissioner spent some time drilling into the directorate's decision to engage Sparke Helmore to do a desktop audit of the procurement. The firm only looked at the documents available and did not speak to anyone as part of their audit.
Nobody spoke to Ms Young about her explosive note alleging union interference through the minister's office.
The scope of the audit was to examine the "defensibility" of the decision to award the tender to Lendlease over Manteena. It was not looking to get to the bottom of what the note said.
Email trails show the minister's office requested information to show that the minister was not involved in the procurement process.
The directorate communications team drafted a sanitised version of events in a list of "talking points" in case of media request. These points did not hint at any of the probity issues at play.
Manteena repeatedly requested a meeting with the Education director-general. They finally got one in June 2022.
They went in seeking answers but what they got was more spin and cover up. Education Directorate executive group manager of business services David Matthews said the meeting occurred under legal advice that Manteena might be looking to sue the government.
Directorate executives would not admit any wrongdoing, instead deflecting the blame to Mr Green who had moved on from the directorate by then.
Ms Berry has never admitted anything untoward happened during the procurement.
"I'm confident that all our procurement processes are fair and properly managed," she said in a press conference on March 31, 2022.
"I understand the audit that was conducted into the Campbell School community did say that the processes that were followed were the appropriate processes, however, that those processes could be strengthened."
That confidence should be well and truly shaken by the public testimony of the 11 witnesses in this matter.
This Integrity Commission investigation has shown the value of having a body that can properly investigate the actions of ACT public servants.
Mr Green admitted he did not tell the whole truth to the ACT Auditor-General and that he was following "the corporate line" in his sworn interviews. It was only when the commission got involved that the "real truth" came tumbling out.
Whether or not corruption charges come from this sorry saga, it's put the ACT government on notice that honesty, integrity and probity matter.
In the first public showing, the commission is proving why it is sorely needed.