The New South Wales Labor general secretary Kaila Murnain has been suspended, hours after telling an anti-corruption hearing she was told by an ALP lawyer to “forget” allegations of an illegal $100,000 donation from a Chinese billionaire.
Opposition leader Jodi McKay released a statement on Wednesday night saying she was appalled by the evidence and was stepping in to “clean up the mess”.
“I no longer have confidence in her judgment,” Ms McKay said of asking party officials to suspend Ms Murnain.
Pat Garcia will take over as general secretary.
In the bombshell evidence earlier on Wednesday, Ms Murnain, 32, detailed the “distressed” and “agitated” confession of Ernest Wong that a billionaire property developer Huang Xiangmo was the true source of the cash.
“What the sh-t?” Ms Murnain said after Mr Wong, the former NSW MLC, told her the news at the back of Parliament House in September 2016.
“He sort of just blurted out that a donor who said they had given money to the Labor party had not given money to the Labor Party.”
Ms Murnain, 32, told ICAC she knew immediately how serious the situation was and that if it was true, it was an illegal donation.
“I do remember stepping back and realising what all this meant,” Ms Murnain said.
After meeting Mr Wong, Ms Murnain’s first phone call was to NSW Labor Senator Sam Dastyari for advice.
Ms Murnain revealed she tearfully confessed the news to Mr Dastyari as he drove her around Sydney and he told her to “tell the lawyers”.
But she told the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) that when she told her lawyer, Ian Robertson AO, he allegedly told her to keep quiet.
Mr Robertson is the managing partner of Holding Redlich and served as Bob Hawke’s lawyer for nearly 30 years.
“He asked me whether I thought Ernest (Wong) was telling the truth or not. I said yes,” Ms Murnain said.
“There is no need to do anything from here. Don’t record this meeting. Don’t put it in your diary. Forget this conversation happened with Ernest and I won’t be billing this for you either,” she alleged Mr Robertson said.
“And that was it – and ‘don’t tell anyone about it’. So I initially didn’t tell anyone about it.”
Mr Robertson did not answer questions from the media as he left the hearing on Wednesday afternoon. But his lawyers indicated they would vigorously cross-examine Ms Murnain.
“I explained to him that I had told Ernest (Wong) to get the person to come forward. He asked me again if there was any evidence,” Ms Murnain said.
Ms Murnain said she was “quite sure” Mr Robertson told her not to tell anyone and didn’t take any notes of the meeting.
“He wasn’t writing anything down,” she said.
Ms Murnain was giving evidence at ICAC hearings investigating allegations the ALP accepted a donation from Mr Huang, and that there was an elaborate conspiracy to conceal the truth of his identity.
Her evidence directly contradicts the sworn testimony of another Labor official, Kenrick Cheah, who earlier this week said Ms Murnain saw the bag and told him to “be careful” when he took it home.
Ms Murnain began her evidence shortly after 2pm, detailing her knowledge of the events surrounding a 2015 Chinese Friends of Labor dinner attended by former Labor leader Bill Shorten.
She was repeatedly unable to recall if she saw the cash or when she learned that a $100,000 donation was received. But she accepted that she learned a large sum of money had come into the office at some point.
“The truth is I actually don’t remember,” she said.
Mr Cheah gave evidence that Ms Murnain saw him counting the money from the dinner.
But Ms Murnain said she has no recollection of this.
“I just don’t remember that. I don’t remember the counting taking place,” she said.
Ms Murnain said that in 2015 she did not know what Mr Huang looked like, even if he had visited Sussex Street.
“The truth is I wouldn’t be able to recognise Mr Huang even if he walked into the office,” she said.
“I wouldn’t have known what he looked like.”
Asked if she had any memory of Mr Cheah with a plastic bag of cash, she told ICAC this was not unusual.
“He would frequently bring in bags of money from fundraisers,” she said.
Earlier, the inquiry heard a man who the Labor Party claimed had donated $5000 at the dinner reveal he was forced to lie about donating the cash and never attended the event.
Describing himself as “a small potato”, retiree Steve Tong told ICAC that he had “no choice” but to lie because he feared his powerful employers would “take their revenge” if he did not follow orders.
Speaking with the aid of a Cantonese interpreter, Mr Tong insisted he had “no choice” but to follow the orders of his employers, Wu International, another property development company, when he lied on disclosure forms to the electoral commission about the $5000 donation.
“I had already told a lie, so I had to follow through with it,” he said.
When Mr Tong was asked what he was worried about, he said he was concerned about his employment.
“Honestly? About losing my job. I was worried that they would take their revenge on me; hire some scoundrel,” Mr Tong said.