Former staffers for Gladys Berejiklian, her deputy John Barilaro and former minister Gabrielle Upton have sought to deflect blame from their bosses for a grants scheme the NSW premier admits was pork barrelling.
The staffers gave evidence on Wednesday at a NSW upper house probe into the Stronger Communities Grant Fund, which handed $252 million to councils primarily in coalition-held electorates ahead of last year’s election.
They described a process of recommending millions of dollars in grants that involved almost no paperwork in their offices.
Mr Barilaro’s former deputy chief of staff Laura Clarke said she understood that grants under the scheme were approved by the Office of Local Government, not politicians.
She was shown several emails she sent the agency’s chief executive Tim Hurst, saying her boss had approved funding for individual councils, but insisted she understood the agency was the real approver.
Ms Clarke said she collated funding requests for regional councils by talking to local MPs, who were all coalition members, and then ran them past Mr Barilaro verbally. She then sent them to Mr Hurst for approval.
In one email, Mr Hurst asked Ms Clarke to “please confirm for our audit records that the deputy premier has approved these project allocations”.
She replied: “Yes, confirmed, all approved by the DP.”
The Office of Local Government has denied it was the decision-maker under the scheme.
Ms Clarke said that if Mr Barilaro was signing off on the expenditure she would have expected to receive a brief and documentation on the decision. But there was no paperwork around these proposals apart from emails, she said.
“I never expected an email sent by myself to the Office of Local Government would be approval of a fund,” she said.
The money in the fund was originally appropriated to the then-local government minister Gabrielle Upton.
But after the first two grants, she stopped approving them herself.
Her chief of staff at the time, Kevin Wilde, told the committee he did not know whose idea it was to change the guidelines for eligibility for grants in 2018.
Mr Wilde agreed that Ms Upton appeared to have signed off on the new guidelines two days after she had already approved a grant under them.
“I can’t think of another example from my time in government of a fund that operated in this manner,” Mr Wilde said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Ms Berejiklian’s former policy adviser Matthew Crocker told the inquiry the premier’s office only became involved in the scheme in April 2018 to help implement a cabinet decision.
He said he instructed a policy officer to look for projects in councils that had been subject to merger proposals but had not merged, because they had a reasonable expectation of compensation.
Labor committee members pressed him continually to identify who made the decision on which councils got funded, and how much. He said it was a “question of mathematics”.
The policy officer put together a table of councils with proposed funding splits, which “went through to the premier”, but the final determination on projects was made by the Office of Local Government, he said.
Ms Berejiklian last month declared pork barrelling was “not illegal”.
She again refused an invitation to appear before the inquiry on November 20, committee chair David Shoebridge said on Wednesday. He encouraged the premier to front the inquiry and explain her office’s actions.
Former NSW auditor-general Tony Harris on Wednesday told the inquiry, “I don’t think I have seen a program as purely politically administered as this in my time.”