Bary O’Farrell: “I stress the fact that I dropped in to say hello to the president.” Photo: Supplied Nick Di Girolamo: registered lobbyist for the Korean government-owned company Kores. Photo: Nick Moir
Named in an ICAC inquiry: former resources minister Chris Hartcher. Photo: Sasha Woolley
Premier Barry O’Farrell has been forced to admit he “dropped in” on a meeting attended by Liberal identity Nick Di Girolamo and former resources minister Chris Hartcher, whose relationship is being examined as part of a major corruption inquiry.
The government has also admitted the meeting, on February 28, 2012, may have occurred before Mr Di Girolamo was placed on the official lobbyist register representing the Korean government-owned company Kores, raising questions about whether Mr Hartcher breached the ministerial code of conduct.
Kores had been seeking approval for the controversial $800 million Wallarah 2 coal mine on the Central Coast – a project Mr O’Farrell had promised to block while in opposition, but which was recently given planning department support.
Mr O’Farrell’s admission in question time came only minutes after Mr O’Farrell told Parliament that ‘‘to the best of my knowledge’’ he had not met with Mr Di Girolamo over the controversial mine project.
The Premier subsequently told Parliament he had been ‘‘approached on two occasions’’ for a meeting with Kores Australia, on November 15, 2012 and March 8 last year.
However he said the meetings ‘‘did not proceed. That’s to the best of my knowledge’’.
Under the questioning by Opposition Leader John Robertson and Maroubra MP Michael Daley, Mr O’Farrell then told Parliament that records do not show any of his staff meeting Mr Di Girolamo over Wallarah 2.
But he added: ‘‘Records do show that on the 28th of February , during his visit to Sydney, I dropped in for five minutes to a meeting between the president of Kores, Mr [Kim Shin-jong] and the minister for resources and energy [Mr Hartcher], and I am advised that amongst the nine people present was Mr Di Girolamo.’’
Mr O’Farrell went on to say that ‘‘I stress the fact that I dropped in to say hello to the president and to apologise for the fact that I hadn’t previously been able to see him’’.
However, on Wednesday night his office did not explain how he could have been seeking to apologise for not holding meetings that were only requested nine months later or, alternatively, if he failed to disclose to Parliament other approaches.
Asked why Mr Di Girolamo attended the meeting, given he had yet to register as a lobbyist, a spokesman said following media inquiries in March 2013 ‘‘it was noticed by the premier’s office that Mr Di Girolamo’s placement on the lobbyist register may have occurred shortly after [the February 28 meeting]’’.
‘‘The Premier’s chief of staff immediately reported this to the director general of the department of premier and cabinet,’’ the spokesman said.
The ministerial code states ministers must abide by the lobbying code of conduct, which forbids them meeting with lobbyists who are not on the official register.
It is the first time Mr O’Farrell has acknowledged any contact with Mr Di Girolamo over Wallarah 2 since Fairfax Media first raised the issue in March last year.
It has previously been revealed that in December 2012, Mr Di Girolamo sought to organise a meeting between a senior Kores executive and Planning Minister Brad Hazzard over Wallarah 2. However, that meeting did not proceed either as Mr Hazzard was unavailable at the time. Last week Mr Di Girolamo and Mr Hartcher were named in an inquiry being undertaken by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Among the allegations being examined is that as chief executive of a water infrastructure firm, Australian Water Holdings, Mr Di Girolamo agreed the company would make ‘‘regular payments’’ to a company called Eightbyfive. Eightbyfive was owned by Tim Koelma, who was a volunteer in Mr Hartcher’s electorate office before the March 2011 election and became his senior policy advisor.
ICAC says it is alleged the payments were made ‘‘purportedly for the provision of media, public relations and other services and advice’’, in return for which Mr Hartcher ‘‘favoured the interests of AWH’’.
The Wallarah 2 project was denied approval by the former Labor government just before the March 2011 state election.
As opposition leader, Mr O’Farrell and his Central Coast spokesman, Mr Hartcher, had held a rally in 2009 opposing the project, dressed in red T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘‘water not coal’’. Mr O’Farrell told the rally: “The next Liberal-National government will ensure mining cannot occur here … no ifs, no buts. A guarantee.”
In January 2012, Kores resubmitted its plans shortly after Mr Hartcher, as the new resources minister, told Parliament all mining proposals should be subject to “merit-based assessments”. In March 2012, Mr Di Girolamo registered as a lobbyist with the NSW Parliament via his company Westin Strategic Consulting. Kores was its sole client.
In October 2012, Kores lodged a development application.
Last week, the NSW Department of Planning announced it was recommending Wallarah 2 be approved, subject to strict conditions.
The project will be considered by the Planning Assessment Commission, which had previously recommended that 40 conditions be attached to any approval.