London, 28 April-2014, Michael Safiand (AFP): A fourth NSW government MP has stood down from the Liberal party as new allegations surfaced in a corruption inquiry.
Marie Ficarra has stepped aside from the Liberal party. Photograph: AP
On the opening day of the latest Independent Commission Against Corruption (Icac) inquiry in Sydney, it was claimed that the Liberal upper house MP Marie Ficarra took a banned $5,000 donation from a property developer, Tony Merhi.
Ficarra has voluntarily stepped aside after being asked to do so by the premier, Mike Baird.
A spokesman for Ficarra said she “strenuously denies” the allegations.
“Her record against part 3a of the Environmental Planning Assessment Act against overdevelopment and lobbyists and speaking out against corruption is well documented in the parliament’s Hansard,” he said.
“She has voluntarily stood down from the parliamentary Liberal party and as parliamentary secretary to the premier pending the conclusion of the Icac hearing.”
Baird said he was “shocked and appalled” at the allegations.
“As I said at the announcement of this inquiry, if any wrongdoing is found, the book should, and will, be thrown at the perpetrators,” he said.
He confirmed that Ficarra had “withdrawn” from the parliamentary Liberal party. Paul Nicolaou, the head of a Liberal fundraising organisation, the Millenium Foundation, had also resigned.
“I have told the party’s new state director, as a matter of urgency, to investigate the allegations made at ICAC and respond to them promptly – including by dealing with any payments that have been made to the party in contravention of the law,” Baird said.
“I want to assure the people of NSW that, as premier, I intend to overhaul the political culture of NSW so that the wrongdoings that have been uncovered in a series of recent ICAC investigations will never happen again.”
Baird said he was a supporter of using public funding to pay for political campaigns, “as a mechanism to expunge the corrosive culture of political donations”.
“The time has come for a public debate on this matter, with decisive action to follow,” he said.
In his opening address to the commission, counsel assisting, Geoffrey Watson, SC, alleged that shortly before the 2011 state election, Ficarra had met Merhi.
The property developer was said to be concerned that the Liberals would repeal a section of the Environmental Planning Assessment Act that allowed certain “state-important” planning decisions to be taken away from local councils and made by the planning minister.
Merhi claimed that Ficarra told him he might need the services of a lobbyist, Watson said. That same day, Merhi claimed that he received a call from someone offering to lobby on his behalf, in exchange for an upfront payment of $5,000.
Shortly after the meeting, a company linked to Merhi donated that sum to a bank account of Eightbyfive, a company run by Tim Koelma, a former staffer for Chris Hartcher, who was sacked from the ministry and suspended from the Liberal party last year.
EightByFive is said to have solicited illicit political donations and funded election campaigns for central coast Liberal MPs Darren Webber and Chris Spence in return for favours from Hartcher.
Webber and Spence were also suspended from the party last year.
The inquiry has heard that NSW Liberal figures used a sham company to secretly funnel more than $400,000 in donations to prospective MPs and associates in exchange for favours.
“This inquiry will expose the systematic subversion of the electoral funding laws of NSW,” Watson, told Icac as the Operation Spicer hearings began.
One-time mining magnate Nathan Tinkler’s Buildev Group paid $66,000, the Gazal family’s development company Gazcorp paid $137,000, and the Obeid-linked Australian Water Holdings (AWH) paid $137,000 for fake services invoiced by EightByFive, the inquiry has heard.
Hartcher resigned from the NSW Coalition government’s front bench last year after Icac investigators raided his office.
The inquiry comes on the heels of Operation Credo, during which the NSW premier, Barry O’Farrell, resigned.
The new probe has already threatened to draw in the police minister, Michael Gallacher, and the energy minister, Anthony Roberts.
The inquiry has heard that Roberts may have joined Hartcher as a guest on Nabil Gazal’s yacht, and in 2007 sailed to Hamilton Island, the luxury resort in Queensland’s Whitsundays.
Operation Spicer will also examine a false corruption complaint levelled against a former Sydney Water managing director, Kerry Schott.
Icac has heard that Koelma’s brother Eric made an anonymous complaint against Schott – which later proved to be baseless – because she was seen as a stumbling block in EightByFive donor AWH’s bid to secure a lucrative government deal.
Watson said Eric Koelma made a complaint involving allegations of “cover-ups” and “jobs for the boys”, which were included in a document sent to him by his brother.
“No, it was not done to disguise [Tim Koelma’s] hand in this – he says he sent it on to Eric because his printer had run out of toner,” Watson said.
The commission resumes on Tuesday morning.