Minutes before his much-awaited ICAC appearance, a confident-looking Arthur Sinodinos surprised the waiting journalists in the media room with a visit.
As if on an election campaign, the senator shook hands with his journo mates and exchanged pleasantries with his Order Of Australia medal pinned to his chest.
But that apparent confidence faded quickly as counsel assisting the ICAC, Geoffrey Watson SC, began his forensic questioning of the Liberal powerbroker.
A seemingly thirsty Senator Sinodinos downed litres of water as the former chairman of Australian Water Holdings (AWH) repeatedly claimed he “did not recall” when asked questions about meetings he attended while at AWH.
The ICAC is investigating allegations AWH billed the state-owned Sydney Water for luxury travel, lavish salaries and limousine rides.
But Senator Sinodinos says he didn’t know anything about those expenses or that AWH paid almost $75,000 in donations to the NSW Liberal Party despite being the party’s treasurer.
“He’s going to need to take a toilet break soon,” one journalist in the media room joked.
“Don’t worry, he’s sweating it out,” another replied.
Senator Sinodinos, who recently stepped down as assistant federal treasurer, repeatedly asked Mr Watson to rephrase his questions and at one point pushed the lawyer to the edge.
“Will you concentrate!” Mr Watson exclaimed.
“You want to get back to work no doubt, senator. So do I.”
Liberal connections forgotten
In testimony before the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) on Thursday, the sidelined federal assistant treasurer and former chair of AWH denied knowing the firm had donated $72,483 to the NSW Liberal Party.
Documents before the commission suggest the payments were made between March 2009 and December 2010, during a period when Senator Sinodinos was first a director and then chairman of AWH.
“Are you denying knowing that the company of which you were a director and deputy chairman was donating to a party of which you were the treasurer?” counsel assisting Geoffrey Watson SC said on Thursday.
“Yes,” Senator Sinodinos replied.
He said he cold not “recollect” AWH donations to the Liberal Party.
The ICAC is in the third week of an investigation into claims AWH corruptly billed the state-owned Sydney Water for luxury hotel stays and limousine rides.
It has also been alleged the family of crooked ex-Labor MP Eddie Obeid had a secret stake in the firm and stood to gain $100 million from a mooted partnership with the NSW government.
Senator Sinodinos has denied knowledge of a $400,000 lifeline allegedly thrown to AWH by the Obeids in 2011 so the infrastructure company could meet its tax and superannuation obligations.
Senator Sinodinos was pressed to explain why AWH made a string of payments to companies linked to Liberal identities, including Paul Nicoloau and Michael Photios, during a period Mr Watson said “the tax man couldn’t be paid”.
ICAC documents suggest the company paid alleged slush fund EightByFive $7333 every month between April 2009 and May 2011, though Senator Sinodinos could not explain what work the firm was doing for AWH.
He said he did not realise AWH paid a total $160,000 to Mr Nicoloau’s SolutionsRUs.
Investor Rod De Aboitiz has previously told the inquiry he confronted Senator Sinodinos about the staggering costs being run up by AWH executives, but was assured the board was on top of it.
Senator Sinodinos on Thursday said he remembered the meeting, but struggled to recall specific concerns Mr De Aboitiz raised.
When asked whether Mr De Aboitiz told him that owing money to the tax office would result in the company being wound up, Senator Sinodinos replied: “I don’t remember that at all. I don’t recollect that one way or another.”
But instead of bringing the investor’s concerns to the board, Mr Watson said, the senator attacked his reputation by agreeing with AWH CEO Nick Di Girolamo that Mr De Aboitiz was simply “seeking to leverage a commercial advantage for himself”.
Senator Sinodinos denied this.
He also denied entering into a “gentleman’s agreement” with Mr Di Girolamo regarding AWH shares the senator believed he was entitled to.
The senator had told a Fairfax reporter that the agreement would see Mr Di Girolamo’s shares diluted so that Senator Sinodinos would get five per cent worth of shares.
But Senator Sinodinos now denies there was such an agreement, saying his comments were a “mischaracterisation on my part”.
“(I was) on the run (and) under pressure from a journalist – I’m not perfect,” he told the commission.
Earlier in the proceedings
Sinodinos had earlier admitted to a corruption inquiry he did nothing to find out why costs at AWH were going “through the roof”.
Counsel assisting Geoffrey Watson SC has told the inquiry that at a time when AWH’s works were practically complete, costs were ballooning from an anticipated $200,000 a month to “$300-, $400- and then $600- then $800,000 a month”.
Senator Sinodinos, who was on the company’s board from 2008, until he left for parliament in 2011, said although he knew the issue was causing friction with Sydney Water, he never tried to get to the bottom of it.
“So in respect of Australian Water Holdings and its contract with its single customer and a hot dispute between the two, you did nothing to get information as to why the costs were escalating – is that right?” Mr Watson asked.
“That is right,” Senator Sinodinos said.
But he said the company had legal advice that Sydney Water, in its attempts to audit AWH’s billings, was asking for information to which it was not entitled and may have been acting in bad faith.
“You did nothing to ascertain the facts behind the escalation of Australian Water Holding’s costs. Just answer the question,” Mr Watson said.
“Not specifically, no,” Senator Sinodinos said.
Sydney Water’s former managing director Kerry Schott has given evidence that in 2010 she met with the then-Mr Sinodinos and warned him about “the company he was keeping”, because the people he was working with at AWH might be dishonest.
“I don’t remember her using the word dishonest,” Senator Sinodinos said.
“That’s a pretty heavy word.”
The Liberal party powerbroker also defended his $200,000 salary as chairman of AWH, even though the inquiry has heard he did as little as 25.5 hours of AWH work a year.
Former Sydney Water chairman Tom Parry was paid half that amount, although he spent one day a week working at the utility’s offices.
“One had several thousand employees. One had 10 employees,” Mr Watson said.