Airport deal may have defrauded taxpayers

A federal police investigation into a controversial government land deal is focusing on a potential fraud after the auditor-general’s unprecedented referral.

The infrastructure department in 2018 paid $30 million for land worth $3 million near the Western Sydney Airport.

Auditor-General Grant Hehir referred the deal to federal police earlier this year, more than two months before releasing an explosive report on the purchase.

Australian Federal Police are looking at additional material provided by the Australian National Audit Office, with the investigation in its early stage.

AFP deputy commissioner Ian McCartney said the audit office was most concerned about the discrepancy between the land price and value.

“We haven’t identified any criminality in relation to the matter at this stage,” he told a Senate estimates hearing in Canberra on Tuesday.

“We can’t rule anybody out but we can’t rule anybody in either.”

AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw said the auditor-general could find no other past referrals to federal police.

“They could not find a previous referral within the last 20 years and therefore there was no established procedures on how to manage this,” he said.

Mr Hehir said it was uncommon to contact police about matters uncovered through his audits.

“There was information that we found which we couldn’t explain and that was suggestive of the fact that the Commonwealth may have been defrauded,” he said.

“And having come to that view – as I said, we didn’t have direct evidence of that – I thought it was in the public interest for me to provide information to the AFP commissioner.”

Mr Hehir contacted the Australian Federal Police on July 10. 

It was the first time he had done so since taking on the role five years ago.

Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott is satisfied with infrastructure boss Simon Atkinson’s move to launch independent audits, with two public servants under investigation.

“Clearly there are issues here which make for very grim reading in the auditor-general’s report,” Mr Woolcott said.

He does not believe there’s a “burning platform” of integrity issues across the public service, insisting checks and balances are working.

“Whether it’s confined to one particular work unit or wider than that, all of this will come out in the wash,” Mr Woolcott said.

One official has been stood down while being investigated, and another has been moved within the department as a result of the auditor’s report.

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