Questions raised over gifts and hospitality for East West Link public servants

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The Age: Questions raised over gifts and hospitality for East West Link public servants. October 27, 2014. Clay Lucas City Editor, The Age

EXCLUSIVE

The chief executive and senior officers at the Linking Melbourne Authority, the agency in charge of the Napthine government’s East West Link project, received thousands of dollars in gifts and hospitality from Australia’s biggest engineering, legal and construction firms.

Among the companies taking the authority’s senior public servants to sporting events such as Derby Day and the Australian Open tennis was a subsidiary of Lend Lease, which won the East West Link tender.

The gifts have sparked calls for senior bureaucrats to be forced to declare gifts publicly, as members of Parliament must do.

Monash University’s governance research unit director Ken Coghill said: “If companies are offering gifts or hospitality, they clearly view it as in the interests of the company. What’s the point of offering hospitality like this unless it is to curry favour?”

The gifts and hospitality accepted, predominantly by chief executive Ken Mathers, include:

* Golf days, including at the prestigious Victoria Golf Club in Cheltenham.

* Several trips to the Australian Open tennis, at times including dinner.

* A wine-tasting and degustation dinner.

* Marquee invitations to Oaks Day, Derby Day and the Melbourne Cup.

* AFL luncheons.

* Industry lunches and dinners.

At a minimum the gifts amount in value to at least $9000 but are likely to be more as the estimated value of many events are marked as “not known” on details released by the authority.

Declared internally within the authority as required under state government rules, the gifts were made in the 18 months before tendering for the $6.8 billion East West Link toll road began.

The Lend Lease consortium this month showed its appreciation after winning the tender by shouting Linking Melbourne Authority executives a lavish dinner at Vue de Monde, one of Melbourne’s most expensive restaurants.

A spokeswoman for the Linking Melbourne Authority said the gifts and hospitality were made under an accepted state government framework, where any benefit over $150 was declared.

The Age does not suggest any impropriety on the part of gift recipients.

The road authority’s Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality Register is not a publicly available document. The 48 gifts were detailed in a freedom of information request released to The Age with some deletions.

The authority’s spokeswoman also said the authority took probity “very seriously and did not accept any hospitality or gifts from any member of any bidding party during the tender process” for the East West Link.

The final event detailed in the documents released by the authority is August 2013. The tendering for the East West Link began around the same time.

Some of the companies that took Mr Mathers to events, lunches or dinners are part of the consortium that ultimately won the $5.3 billion East West Link contract, including Lend Lease and engineers Parsons Brinckerhoff.

The authority’s spokeswoman reiterated that any hospitality provided by these companies “occurred well before the bidding process for East West Link began”.

Other firms that gave gifts to the Linking Melbourne Authority’s management team have long-term contracts as specialist advisers on the East West Link project, including engineers SKM/Jacobs and GHD and lawyers Clayton Utz.

Monash University’s Professor Coghill, a former speaker in Victoria’s lower house of Parliament, said companies that offered bureaucrats any hospitality or gifts should be ineligible to bid on future public-sector contracts. And he said bureaucrats who accepted gifts or hospitality should have to declare it in a manner identical to MPs, who must publicly state any gift over $500.

He said the head of any authority that accepted gifts from companies that would be likely to tender for contracts “should explain just what he thought was the motivation of the companies offering hospitality”.

The opposition opposes the East West Link and, if it wins the state election in 37 days, says it will attempt to use a court case launched by inner-city councils to declare invalid the contract signed last month by the Napthine government.

Labor MP Luke Donnellan said Roads Minister Terry Mulder needed to explain if it was appropriate for the authority’s senior staff to accept gifts from companies standing to benefit from public contracts.

“Was he aware of the gifts thrown at the Linking Melbourne Authority by companies who are set to gain from the East West Link tunnel?”

The Age asked Mr Mulder if he believed it was appropriate for the authority’s chief executive and senior colleagues to accept a wide range of gifts from firms standing to receive taxpayer-funded contracts worth millions of dollars.

His spokeswoman said the government expected all public servants to adhere to guidelines for hospitality in place. “The material provided to The Age demonstrates integrity in the tender process,” she said.

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