‘Mr Probity’: the ethics adviser scrutinising the land titles sell-off

Former NSW Mining Minister Ian Macdonald found guilty of misconduct in public office leaves court, Sydney. 30th March, 2017. Photo: Kate Geraghty Photo: Kate GeraghtyThe man hired to cast his ethical eye over the land titles registry privatisation is the same person who once declared former mining minister Ian Macdonald had “acted within [his] powers” when he gave a lucrative exploration licence to a friend.
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Fairfax Media can reveal the probity adviser on the Berejiklian government’s 35-year lease of Land and Property Information (LPI) is Rory O’Connor, managing director of professional services firm O’Connor Marsden and Associates (OCM).

Mr O’Connor, known as “Mr Probity” on Macquarie Street, has scrutinised several controversial deals of Labor powerbrokers, including the sale of Currawong union retreat and the Blackwattle Bay lease.

He attracted media attention after OCM concluded in a 2010 report for the Labor government that Mr Macdonald had “acted within the powers afforded to him” when he granted, without tender, an exploration licence to Doyles Creek Mining, a company chaired by union boss John Maitland.

When the O’Farrell government took power, it obtained a second opinion from Clayton Utz, which found OCM’s report was “deficient in several significant respects … specifically, it did not adequately review the conduct of the minister”.

In 2013, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) found Mr Macdonald had acted corruptly by “gifting” the licence to Mr Maitland out of a “desire to benefit his mate”.

Now, Mr Macdonald is facing jail time after a Supreme Court jury last week found him guilty of criminal misconduct in relation to the Doyles Creek deal.

The Berejiklian government is expected to announce this week the consortium that has won the right to operate LPI – a monopoly provider of essential titling and registry services – for the next 35 years.

A leaked Treasury document shows Mr O’Connor has been hired to “ensure the procedures adopted in the [LPI] transaction are fair, equitable and conducted in accordance with the established probity framework”.

The Labor opposition is attempting to repeal the legislation enabling the LPI lease, saying fees will increase, jobs will be sent offshore, and title insurance will be forced upon home buyers. Blackwattle Bay marina

Fairfax Media can also reveal Mr O’Connor conducted a “probity quality assurance review” of NSW Maritime’s 2009 decision to award the tender for a maritime development on the Blackwattle Bay site to Joe Elias, an associate of the family of former Labor minister Eddie Obeid.

The tender was presided over by then Labor ports minister Joe Tripodi and then NSW Maritime’s CEO Steve Dunn. Mr Tripodi appointed Mr Dunn to his position at the behest of Mr Obeid.

Mr O’Connor found “no evidence of inappropriate processes or activities or that any party was unfairly discriminated against or given advantage over another”, according to Roads and Maritime Services.

However, it is worth noting ICAC has since found Mr Tripodi, Mr Dunn and Mr Obeid had acted corruptly in an unrelated matter – the Obeid family’s Circular Quay leases.

Mr Elias’ Blackwattle Bay development never happened, and with the Berejiklian government’s $250 million plan to build a new Sydney Fish Market, he is in for a windfall. Currawong union retreat

Mr O’Connor also wrote a probity report on Unions NSW’s 2007 sale of its Currawong holiday retreat to Eco-Villages, whose directors were Allen Linz and Eduard Litver. KWC Capital Partners, founded by David Tanevski, brokered the sale.

Amid outrage that Currawong didn’t go to the highest bidder, Labor MP John Robertson asked Mr O’Connor to do a probity report and review the relationship between Mr Tanevski and Mr Linz.

Mr O’Connor’s report failed to ascertain that Mr Linz owned half of KWC Capital Partners and failed to note that Mr Linz, Mr Tanevski and Mr Robertson had been in business together.

Later, he said there was “no provision in the agreement” to disclose Mr Tanevski and Mr Linz’s business relationship.

He told Fairfax Media at the time that he was unable to explain these anomalies as he no longer had access to his working files, but could confirm the work was conducted in “good faith”.

The Currawong sale returned to the spotlight when ICAC found that in the dying days of the Labor government in March 2011, then land department chief Warwick Watkins and then planning minister Tony Kelly had acted corruptly in backdating a letter to allow Mr Linz to sell Currawong to the government. Concerns rejected

Mr O’Connor, a probity practitioner with more than 20 years’ experience, told Fairfax Media that OCM was a leader in its field and a member of state and federal probity panels.

In regards to the “interim” Clayton Utz report, he said he had significant issues with its content and quality.

“Indeed Clayton Utz acknowledged that they did not have access to the briefing papers and instructions provided to OCM, which obviously also limited the extent to which they were in a position to assess our work,” he said.

Mr O’Connor said following the report, OCM’s accreditation was reviewed and reaffirmed.

He said OCM won the LPI contract through a competitive tender process.

“We are surprised that anyone would [have concerns about our involvement], and reject any such concerns,” he said.

A Treasury spokesperson said the government conducted a competitive tender process in accordance with strict government procurement processes.

“The current probity advisers … are taken from a panel that are required to undergo an extensive evaluation process to ensure they have the integrity, capability and experience to represent the state on these matters,” she said.

Opposition Leader Luke Foley said it beggars belief the Berejiklian government would rely on Mr O’Connor to run the rule over the integrity of the LPI privatisation.

“Nothing about this sale makes sense and that is why of all of this government’s privatisations, flogging off our safe and secure land titles system is the single dopiest,” he said.

Read letters to the editor concerning the LPI privatisation on December 5, December 10, February 3, March 14, March 29, April 3 and the Herald’s editorial.

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