Candidate for John Barilaro’s NY role had offer retracted after ‘government decision’, inquiry told

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Businesswoman Jenny West was given a “verbal offer” for a New York-based trade commissioner job, but the head of Investment New South Wales, Amy Brown, was told to “unwind” the process after an instruction from the office of the then deputy premier John Barilaro.

In an explosive hearing of an upper house inquiry investigating how Barilaro was eventually offered the $500,000-a-year role, Brown, a senior public servant responsible for filling the role, revealed West was told she had got the job in August last year.

The government, including premier Dominic Perrottet, has previously insisted that no suitable candidate was found during the first recruitment process, but during the hearing Brown described her as an “excellent candidate”.

Related: How did ex-NSW deputy premier John Barilaro get his $500,000 trade job?

She told the inquiry she had gone as far as sending West a message to congratulate her on the role.

But by September she had received instructions to “unwind” the offer, because of a “government decision” to instead make the trade commissioner roles “ministerial appointments”. That instruction came from Barilaro’s office, she said.

“She was verbally offered the role and then I was given a direction by government to cease the recruitment due to a change in government policy to convert the roles into statutory officers appointed by a minister,” she told the inquiry.

“It was a decision of government, it would have come through the responsible minister being the minister for industry and trade, [that was] Mr John Barilaro.”

While Brown insisted that it “wasn’t Mr Barilaro’s decision” it was “a decision of government”, she also told the inquiry that her department had been instructed to look into whether the roles could be made as ministerial appointments by his office.

Brown told the inquiry that in September a policy advisor in Barilaro’s office asked her for advice on “the various mechanisms” by which the jobs could be appointed, including whether it could be a “ministerial appointment”.

The adviser “made it clear that the deputy premier wanted to know”.

West’s offer was formally rescinded on 1 October, just days before Barilaro announced he would resign from parliament. Brown told the inquiry that during a conversation a few days later with the incoming minister, Stuart Ayres, a decision was made not to go ahead with the ministerial appointment plan.

After the offer to West was rescinded, first revealed by the Guardian last week, Investment NSW began a second recruitment drive for the job that ended with Barilaro being identified as the “first-ranked candidate against the relevant criteria”.

Asked during the inquiry by Labor’s shadow treasurer, Daniel Mookhey, why she did not just re-offer the position to West rather than embark on the second recruitment process, Brown said it was due to a breakdown in the relationship with West.

Related: NSW premier learned of John Barilaro’s interest in New York trade job in a ‘social setting’

“Why don’t you just say to minister Ayres let’s just appoint this successful candidate in December rather than having to run a whole second process?”

“The news was delivered on the first of October, she was extremely upset about that understandably,” Brown said.

“To me the fact we couldn’t appoint anyone for some period of time and the fact she was very unhappy with the arrangements and government, the whole situation felt quite irreconcilable.”

She said that she began to have concerns about West’s suitability for the role.

“The relationship declined quite quickly once she was informed that she may not be going to New York so by the end of the first process I’d formed the view there was no suitable candidate,” she said.

Wednesday marked the first hearing of the upper house inquiry into Barilaro’s appointment to the position. The inquiry will meet again next Wednesday.

It is understood West will be called to give evidence at the next hearing, along with a senior lawyer at Investment NSW who was asked to provide advice on making the job ministerial appointments.

Barilaro eventually applied for the job in the second round of recruitment, something Brown said she was first told about by Ayres, who she said gave her a “heads up” that he might apply. Ayres did not inform her about any other potential candidates.

There were 12 candidates for the role, Brown said, but Barilaro had emerged as the preferred candidate. She said negotiations for a three-year contract began in May this year. He is due to start in the role on 12 July.

The appointment has caused a political firestorm inside Macquarie Street since it was announced earlier this month. On Wednesday former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull weighed in to express his surprise that the job hadn’t gone to cabinet for approval.

“I am surprised that this wasn’t a cabinet decision. An appointment of this kind, particularly with such a prominent figure as Mr Barilaro would have been much better to go to cabinet and the premier could have defended it, rather than saying it was a decision by a public servant,” Turnbull told the ABC.

“There are many politicians that have been appointed as ambassadors and trade representatives out in Canberra. My government made the decision to appoint Joe Hockey as ambassador to Washington and he did great job, but those were cabinet positions. I could defend them, I could stand up quite promptly and say we made a decision to appoint this person to that job and this is why we did and this is why we say it is a good decision.

“I don’t think there is any doubt that if they could turn the clock back, the NSW government would have made that decision, that appointment, through cabinet.”

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