NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell has told the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) that he didn’t “believe” he received a $3000 bottle of wine from Nick Di Girolamo, the former chief executive of Australian Water Holdings (AWH), a company linked for the family of disgraced Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid.
But the Premier was at a loss to explain why he made a 28-second phone call to Mr Di Girolamo at 9.29pm on the night he was supposedly sent the wine.
“I have no knowledge,” Mr O’Farrell said, in trying to explain why he made the call.
Mr Di Girolamo claimed in evidence earlier in the day that the Premier rang to thank him for the wine.
ICAC also has a courier docket for $129 suggesting the Grange was delivered to his Roseville home on 21 April.
Mr O’Farrell was in the witness box for more than an hour answering questions about his relationship with Mr Di Girolamo, who he described as an “upright” member of the business community.
ICAC is investigating claims that the Obeid family hid their investment in AWH as the company lobbied the NSW government for a lucrative public-private partnership with Sydney Water that could have netted the Obeids $60 million. It’s the second investigation into Eddie Obeid’s business dealings while he was a Labor MP, with ICAC already handing down a finding recommending he face corruption charges over Hunter Valley coal mine deals.
The wine, a 1959 Penfolds Grange, Mr O’Farrell’s birth year, was allegedly sent to his north shore home after he won the March 2011 election by Mr Di Girolamo, who was also a major Liberal Party fundraiser. The AWH boss also spent nearly $100,000 in company money on donations to the Liberals in the lead up to the election.
“I don’t believe I did,” Mr O’Farrell said when Geoffrey Watson, SC, counsel assisting the inquiry, asked if he received the wine.
“Having checked this with my wife today, we are both certain it was not received,” the Premier said, adding that he was more a “Brokenwood Cricket Pitch” drinker (a wine worth about $20) and stored his wine in the bottom of the linen cupboard.
Mr O’Farrell said he was certain he’d remember receiving a bottle of Penfold’s Grange, but was “no wine connoisseur”.
The supposed gift did not appear on the Premier’s pecuniary interests register.
The 1959 Penfolds Grange Hermitage is known as one of the “hidden Grange” because winemaker Max Schubert defied his bosses and kept making the now iconic wine after they’d told him to stop.
In ICAC this morning, Mr Di Girolamo denied suggestions that the wine was a gift to “butter up” the Premier and “grease the wheels” in favour of AWH’s proposal. He claimed Mr O’Farrell called him a short time after to thank him for the gift, and that the two men were in regular contact, speaking every couple of weeks or at least once a month.
Mr O’Farrell confirmed the pair were in “regular contact” during testimony this afternoon.
Credit card records obtained by ICAC show that the wine was bought for $2978 by Mr Di Girolamo’s secretary and annotated with “Gift to Barry O’Farrell and wife”.
A month after supposedly sending the Grange Mr Di Girolamo met with the Premier on 27 May 2011, to lobby him on the AWH deal.
“It was to be for a grand total of 15 minutes,” Mr O’Farrell told ICAC.
Mr O’Farrell rejected suggestions that he was influenced by donations from AWH, although while opposition leader, he wrote a letter of support for the company and its partnership deal with Sydney Water.
The ICAC investigation has already heard evidence from Liberal Senator and former AWH chairman Arthur Sinodinos, who was recruited to AWH by Mr Di Girolamo, and paid $200,000 for around 100 hours of work. He also stood to make $20 million if the company won the Sydney Water contract.
ICAC has also been investigating claims that AWH billed Sydney Water for a range of entertainment expenses, including accommodation and limousine hire, as well as legal advice about suing Sydney Water.
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