Former Victorian Labor minister Adem Somyurek and his political protégé accused journalists of racism in an effort to stop them from investigating taxpayer-funded grants awarded to their factional allies.
Banyule Mayor Rick Garotti, who was mentored by Mr Somyurek, told Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission inquiry on Tuesday he helped the Somali Australian Council of Victoria (SACOV) secure several grants.
This included $100,000 as part of the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation Prevention Partnership Program in 2019, which was overseen by then minister for gaming Marlene Kairouz.
Financial records obtained by IBAC revealed SACOV received about $75,000 from the government, of which $50,000 was spent on wages and salaries, $7000 on videos, $6000 on admin and $4200 for training.
Counsel assisting Chris Carr SC told the inquiry the wages, the training costs and $4500 of the video fees went directly to the organisation’s founder and secretary Hussein Haraco.
Mr Garotti and Dr Haraco were allies in Labor’s moderate faction, led by Mr Somyurek, and contributed thousands of dollars annually to pay for other people’s memberships in the Heidelberg branch.
The practice, known as branch stacking, was done to boost the faction’s influence and ensure preferred candidates were preselected.
It is not illegal but it is against Labor Party rules. IBAC is investigating whether taxpayer funds and money intended for community associations was used for such work.
Mr Garotti said he had “no idea” what the grant was for or what SACOV would do with it, but helped Dr Haraco because he was a “factional ally who ought to be rewarded for their factional activity”.
When journalists contacted Dr Haraco to ask about the grants, Mr Garotti and Mr Somyurek discussed making claims of racism as a response.
“[Say] I’m sorry, but the black people at the moment are very, it’s a time of high sensitivity, and I’m very sensitive and this is part of racism. Can you go that hard?” Mr Somyurek said in the secretly recorded phone conversation, obtained by IBAC.
“We’re talking about Black Lives Matter, it’s not just the police, it’s journalists as well, it’s media, just go hard.”
The duo also drafted an email response to a journalist behalf of Dr Haraco.
“The Somali community is sick of journalists such as yourself accusing us of branch stacking … is it because we are black?” the email reads.
Asked by Mr Carr if the duo confected racism to cower journalists, Mr Garotti said Mr Somyurek “used racism as cover to prevent people walking into dark corners where his secrets are hidden”.
The inquiry heard Dr Haraco recruited about 300 members to the Heidelberg branch over a decade, about a third of whom Mr Garotti said were “non-genuine”.
Mr Somyurek quit Labor before he was expelled but retained his upper house seat, while Ms Kariouz resigned from cabinet. Both deny wrongdoing.