What started as a headache for NSW Premier Mike Baird has turned into a migraine after the state’s corruption watchdog collected the scalps of another two Liberal MPs.
Government whip, Andrew Cornwell, and Newcastle MP, Tim Owen, stood aside from the Liberal party on Wednesday after explosive evidence at the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).
The corruption hearings have now relegated seven Liberal MPs to the cross benches, including ex-police minister Mike Gallacher, while also dethroning ex-premier Barry O’Farrell.
The number of exiled Liberal MPs has now surpassed the entire representation of Greens MPs in both houses of parliament.
Mr Baird has repeatedly pledged to “clean up NSW” but the rising Liberal ICAC body count is making that job increasingly difficult.
The commission sensationally heard on Wednesday Dr Cornwell was offered $10,000 in a brown paper bag by Newcastle mayor Jeff McCloy before the 2011 state election, while sitting in the mayor’s Bentley.
The bag was described as either a brown paper bag or brown envelope full of $100 bills.
Counsel assisting the Commission, Geoffrey Watson, said Dr Cornwell passed the money to a Liberal party colleague and the money was fed through a company called Harmony Hill and eventually funnelled back to the NSW Liberal Party.
Evidence was also heard that Hugh Thomson, a former campaign staffer to Mr Owen, was at the centre of the illegal activity involving banned donations from developers.
These included local radio presenter Luke Grant being paid $20,000 to work on Mr Owen’s campaign, half of which was to be paid for by Hunter region developer Hilton Grugeon and half by local mayor Cr McCloy.
“To disguise their involvement, more sham invoices were created,” Mr Watson said.
Mr Owen, who is a former top-ranking RAAF officer, had already announced in May that he wouldn’t be recontesting his seat in the 2015 election after being named by the ICAC.
While he claimed he had “no knowledge” of any funding irregularities in his 2011 election campaign, he conceded it was “highly likely” that prohibited donors contributed to his campaign.
Both Dr Cornwell and Mr Owen are “confident” they’ll be cleared of any wrongdoing but say they’ve decided to step aside to stop their presence from becoming a distraction for the Baird government.
Dr Cornwell says he’s “determined” to seek re-election in March’s election.