Liberal minister signed off on alternative candidate to NY trade job later given to John Barilaro, documents reveal

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP</span>
Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

The deputy Liberal party leader, Stuart Ayres, signed a briefing confirming the appointment of public servant and businesswoman Jenny West to a New York trade commissioner job which was later given to the former New South Wales deputy premier John Barilaro.

New documents released through parliament showed that in August last year Ayres, the minister for jobs, investment, tourism and western Sydney, was sent a brief from Investment NSW, the department responsible for the appointments, confirming that “a full recruitment process” had decided on West as the “successful candidate”.

The briefing stated the agency would “liaise” with Ayres’ office “to offer a meeting” with West “to discuss priorities for international trade and investment for NSW prior to her relocation to New York”.

Related: John Barilaro’s decision may stem some bleeding, but questions remain about the New York appointment

While the government has insisted ministers were not responsible for appointing the trade commissioner roles, and the briefing was only provided to Ayres for noting, it shows the minister was made aware of West’s impending appointment and did not raise concerns about it.

The document shows Ayres signed the brief with the words “approved” next to his signature on 18 August last year.

That offer was retracted, the chief executive of Investment NSW, Amy Brown, told an upper house inquiry last week, after a “government decision”.

Both Ayres and the premier, Dominic Perrottet, have previously told parliament that “no suitable candidate” had been identified for the job after the first recruitment process for the job.

On Thursday Penny Sharpe, Labor’s upper house leader, claimed the briefing showed that was not the case.

“It is clear that minister Ayres signed off on the appointment of Jenny West and recognised her as the appropriate candidate in round one. To suggest otherwise is incorrect,” she told media.

“Similarly I think the premier has made similar claims in relation to this. They have provided incorrect information to the parliament.”

But Ayres dismissed those comments as “false and deliberately deceptive”. Ayres told the Guardian: “the department secretary made it clear in her evidence to the Legislative Council committee that at the end of the first round of recruitment there was no suitable candidate and a new round of recruitment commenced”.

“This is the same advice she provided to me and the same information I accordingly provided to the Legislative Assembly,” he said.

“To suggest anything other than that is false and deliberately deceptive”.

The new documents also revealed that Ayres met with another senior businesswoman during the second round of recruitment for the New York post, which ultimately led to Barilaro’s appointment.

Kimberly Cole, a Hong Kong-based former Telstra Business Woman award finalist and AmCham Hong Kong Women of Influence award winner, was one of three candidates shortlisted for the job after the offer to West was rescinded.

In an email sent on 16 March this year, she was identified as the “preferred candidate” for the role ahead of the meeting with Ayres.

However in a response five days later, Brown replied to say Cole was not the preferred candidate.

“I’d like to clarify that we don’t currently have a preferred candidate for the STIC [senior trade and investment commissioner] US role,” she wrote.

“We currently have three shortlisted candidates, and the minister is meeting Kimberley in her capacity as shortlisted candidate only.”

Investment NSW has previously insisted the second recruitment drive ended with the former deputy premier being identified as the “first-ranked candidate against the relevant criteria”.

The Guardian has previously revealed both Perrottet and Ayres were briefed about the hiring process, and the latter met with other candidates for the commissioner jobs.

In one email exchange from February, an Investment NSW staff member reveals Brown intended to share the shortlist of candidates for the New York job with Ayres.

“I think Amy was going to share the shortlists with the Minister while they are on the road together in London and she may have shared this with him directly in an email?” the staff member wrote.

Related: John Barilaro withdraws from New York trade role due to ‘media attention’

The Guardian previously revealed that West had previously been told the job was hers via a verbal offer in August last year.

But Ayres’ formal signoff revealed just how advanced West’s appointment was, and raised further questions about the decision to retract the offer just weeks later.

Brown told the inquiry that in September she had received instructions to “unwind” the offer to West because of a “government decision” to instead make the trade jobs “ministerial appointments”. That instruction came from Barilaro’s office, she said.

Related: Guardian Essential poll shows NSW Coalition’s primary vote falling below 40%

While Brown said it “wasn’t Mr Barilaro’s decision” but “a decision of government”, she told the inquiry her department had been instructed to look into changing the roles so they could be made as ministerial appointments by his office.

During the inquiry Brown said she began to have concerns about West’s suitability for the position only after she became “extremely upset” when told the offer was being rescinded.

“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 last week.

In a statement after his resignation, Barilaro said he had “followed the process” during the appointment.

“I believe my appointment will continue to be a distraction and not allow this important role to achieve what it was designed to do, and thus my decision,” he said last week.

“I have always maintained that I followed the process and look forward to the results of the review.”

Investment NSW said in a statement that it was “assisting the department of premier and cabinet and NSW Legislative Council inquiry in reviews of the Senior Trade and Investment Commissioner Americas recruitment process, and as such is not appropriate to make any further comment”.

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