Gladys Berejiklian’s ex-chief of staff says the premier told her about her secret relationship with the former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire two years before it was revealed by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, but no action was taken because she described it as “historic”.
Berejiklian’s former chief of staff, Sarah Cruickshank, told Icac that one night in July 2018, after Maguire gave evidence to a separate anti-corruption investigation which led to his resignation, the premier told her about the relationship in a phone call.
“My distinct recollection is I was at dinner, stepped away to take the call, I don’t remember how the conversation started [but] what I remember most was the premier said to me that she had a history, she used the word historic, I don’t know if she said relationship or friendship [with Maguire],” Cruickshank said on Tuesday.
“I don’t remember a detailed discussion about it [but] I think I would say I left the conversation with the impression it was more than just a few dinners.”
Cruickshank told the inquiry her “clear recollection” was that Berejiklian “definitely” told her the relationship with Maguire had ended before she became the premier.
Icac is investigating whether Berejiklian breached the public’s trust by “exercising public functions” in a position of conflict because of her relationship with Maguire. She has denied any wrongdoing.
Part of the watchdog’s probe is examining whether the former premier breached her legal duties under the state’s Icac Act by failing to report matters that she “suspected on reasonable grounds concerned or may concern corrupt conduct” by Maguire.
The timeline of the relationship Cruickshank says Berejiklian gave her appeared to contradict the evidence the former premier gave to Icac last year.
In those hearings, Berejiklian revealed she had been in a “close personal relationship” with Maguire from 2015 to 2018 but continued to be in contact with him subsequently. Asked in October 2020 when the relationship ended, she said she ceased all contact “a few months ago”.
On Tuesday, Cruickshank told Icac that she did not discuss whether any steps needed to be taken by Berejiklian after she disclosed the relationship in 2018 because she had described it as being “historic”. She told Icac she would have acted differently had she known the full extent of the relationship.
“I would have sat down with her and gone through whether or not there were implications for things she would’ve done. [I had] never seen anything to suggest favour or otherwise of Maguire or the seat of Wagga but I would’ve gone through those steps of probably asking a few more questions of her,” she said.
“I think we would have relatively quickly gotten to the questions of whether she had made the relevant disclosures.”
Asked by the commissioner, Ruth McColl, whether Berejiklian had “lied” to her about the relationship, Cruickshank responded: “I’m uncomfortable about saying that.” She later conceded there was “not really a different way to characterise it”.
In an explosive afternoon of evidence, the counsel assisting Scott Robertson also revealed Berejiklian was given a sensitive briefing by the department of premier and cabinet about an adviser in another minister’s office who was cooperating with the corruption watchdog.
Earlier on Tuesday, Berejiklian’s lawyer accused the NSW anti-corruption watchdog of not affording the former premier “procedural fairness” and criticised the inquiry for asking “seven men” about whether she had a conflict of interest because of her secret relationship with Maguire.
Barrister Sophie Callan SC opened the day with a series of complaints about the inquiry.
Callan said Berejiklian’s legal team had written to Icac requesting information about the “scope” of its investigation into whether she breached her legal duty to report suspected corruption to the watchdog.
She said she had received a “wholly unsatisfactory” response from the inquiry, which, she said, had the effect of denying “procedural fairness” to Berejiklian.
“In order for this public hearing to serve a meaningful purpose … my client [is] entitled to know what is alleged,” she said.
The inquiry has so far heard evidence from a number of public servants and political colleagues of Berejiklian who have told the inquiry they would have acted differently in relation to the two grants at the centre of the corruption probe, had they known about the former premier’s secret relationship with Maguire.
Berejiklian’s predecessor as premier, Mike Baird, told the inquiry last week that he was “incredulous” when he found out about the relationship in 2020 and that it “should have been disclosed”.
Callan indicated she would argue the evidence should not be taken into account by McColl in her findings, saying it could not “rationally bear” on a corruption finding.
“The commission had been prepared to receive evidence from a number of witnesses, seven men, who have expressed their opinion as to whether my client [was] in a position of conflict,” she said.
“[That cannot] rationally bear upon your assessment as to whether a conflict existed [and the] lack of objection should in no way indicate my client accepts any of that evidence could inform your honour on that matter.”
But Callan’s complaints were dismissed by the commission after counsel assisting the inquiry said they contained a “fundamental misapprehension” of the role of the watchdog.
“These proceedings are not a trial,” Robertson said.
“I do not have a case [and] I’m not putting one forward by way of particulars or otherwise [an argument about] whether they are true, false or anything in between. My role is to assist the commission in attempting to get to truth of the allegations.”
Icac is hearing from a number of former Berejiklian staff members, including her former head of strategy, Brad Burden, who told the inquiry he believed the former premier had signed off on $30m in funding for a music recital hall during the 2018 Wagga Wagga byelection caused by Maguire’s resignation.
The grant is one of two at the centre of the corruption hearing.
“I recall that the announcement was made so therefore she would have approved that,” he said.
Icac also heard from Neil Harley, a longtime adviser and the premier’s chief of staff from February 2020 until her resignation. Harley told the inquiry that in 2018, when he was a political liaison officer in Berejiklian’s office, that he had not supported the $30m grant.
Harley told the inquiry he had first heard about Berejiklian’s relationship with Maguire after Icac issued a summons for her to appear at an inquiry into Maguire’s conduct last year.
“It was a very difficult conversation for both of us,” Harley said, noting the former premier was a “very private person”. He told the inquiry he left the meeting with Berejiklian believing the relationship had been “historic in nature” but later found out it had been more “recent”.
“It wasn’t a question we went to as part of that initial conversation, as I say you can imagine it was a very difficult conversation for both of us. It is a very private matter for the former premier who is inherently a very private person, so we didn’t go into detail about when it commenced or when it finished,” he said.
Harley told the inquiry he believed that only Berejiklian could have decided whether the relationship placed her in a position of conflict, but that if he had known earlier he “might have provided advice” about managing it.
Under cross-examination from Berejiklian’s lawyer, Harley gave an impassioned defence of his former boss, saying he had never met anyone in politics “more fiercely committed to public service and serving the people of the state”.
“The community has always come first for premier Berejiklian,” he said.
Harley categorically denied having ever suspected Berejiklian had treated Maguire differently to other MPs in the parliament.
“It’s telling to note that from the time I joined the premier’s office in or around May 2017 through to the time of the byelection in August or September 2018, I can’t recall a single occasion when Ms Berejiklian raised with me either Mr Maguire or the Wagga Wagga electorate. Not a single occasion,” he said.