Liberal powerbroker Arthur Sinodinos is a numbers man: a former investment banker, trusted adviser to John Howard, Australia’s assistant treasurer and once touted as the country’s next finance minister.
But on Thursday the numbers failed to stack up, especially as far as his memory was concerned.
In fact, “I don’t recollect” and “I don’t recall” became the senator’s refrain during his evidence before an inquiry.
Australia’s former assistant treasurer told the NSW corruption watchdog he never investigated ballooning costs at Australian Water Holdings (AWH), which allegedly included million-dollar salaries and a $28,000 limousine bill for which taxpayers picked up the tab.
Nor was he aware the company was once in such dire straits that it could not meet tax and superannuation commitments until corrupt ex-MP Eddie Obeid’s family threw it a $400,000 lifeline.
Senator Sinodinos testified before the Independent Commission Against Corruption that he could no longer recall several details relating to his time on the board of AWH from 2008 until he left for parliament in 2011.
“I don’t recollect” and “I don’t recall” replied the senator during hours of tense questioning over what he knew of the company’s books and when.
It wasn’t easy recalling five-year-old conversations, he told a media scrum outside the commission on Thursday afternoon.
The ICAC is probing allegations AWH corruptly billed the state-owned Sydney Water for lavish salaries and luxury travel as it rolled out water infrastructure around the city’s northwest.
It has also been alleged the Obeids had a secret stake in the company and stood to make $100 million if it secured a public-private partnership (PPP) with the NSW government.
Documents before the commission suggest AWH donated $72,483 to the NSW Liberals between March 2009 and December 2010, during a period when Senator Sinodinos was first a director and then chairman of the company.
Counsel assisting, Geoffrey Watson SC, wanted to know how it was possible Senator Sinodinos missed the payments – despite the fact he was Liberal Party treasurer.
“You did not know that the company of which you were deputy chairman was making donations to the political party of which you were treasurer?” Mr Watson asked.
“No,” a harried-looking Senator Sinodinos replied.
Other alleged payments to Liberal entities that Senator Sinodinos either could not recall or was unable to explain included a $5000 monthly retainer for former state Liberal MP Michael Photios, $183,000 for alleged slush fund EightByFive, and $160,000 for lobbyist Paul Nicolaou’s SolutionsRUs.
Mr Nicolaou introduced Senator Sinodinos to AWH CEO Nick Di Girolamo and the pair met almost weekly.
But the senator could not explain what Mr Nicolau did for the company.
“You never saw anything to indicate anything of any value being provided to Australian Water Holdings by SolutionsRUs, did you?” Mr Watson asked.
“I can’t recall any output, if that’s what you’re asking me,” Senator Sinodinos said.
The Liberal powerbroker earned a $200,000 salary for as little as 25.5 hours work, Mr Watson said.
He admitted to lobbying NSW premier Barry O’Farrell and sacked Liberal minister Greg Pearce to try to win their support for a mooted government-AWH deal.
But he did not tell them he was anticipating a personal payoff worth $10-20 million if the proposal got up, explaining: “They never asked.”
Asked about the future of his political career, Senator Sinodinos was philosophical.
“I’m not speculating on the future,” he told reporters.
“The commission has done its work with me today and I’m keen to go off and have a coffee.”
The inquiry continues.