Disgraced former assistant tax commissioner Nick Petroulias has questioned whether his criminal history should have been divulged to members of the Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council, as they decided whether to green light a $30 million property deal that he allegedly worked up including the former post office building.
Mr Petroulias was one of the country's most senior public servants before he was jailed for corrupt conduct in 2008.
He has emerged as a "central" player in an inquiry by the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) into four deals – one attempted – involving Awabakal land.
Chief commissioner Peter Hall QC is presiding over the inquiry, which is investigating whether Mr Petroulias, his partner Despina Bakis – a solicitor – or any Awabakal board member engaged in dishonest or unlawful conduct during the dealings.
The deals were brokered between 2014 and 2016, with the most lucrative worth $30 million, the opening day of the Operation Skyline hearing was told on Tuesday.
They involved vacant parcels at Warners Bay and the admired former post office building on Hunter Street.
Mr Petroulias was a “common feature” in each of the deals, the inquiry heard.
In one of the more extraordinary allegations aired, Mr Petroulias was accused of signing a 2014 deal on behalf of a company director who was already dead at the time he was appointed to the role.
In his opening address, counsel assisting Nicholas Chen SC alleged that Mr Petroulias used a "two dollar company" he controlled – known as Gows Heat – to obtain purchase rights over several parcels of Awabakal land.
"Mr Petroulias at that time had recently been made a bankrupt," Mr Chen told the inquiry. "Neither Gows Heat nor Mr Petroulias paid any money to the land council to secure this 'right'."
It was alleged Mr Petroulias on-sold the purchase rights to a new buyer and then attempted to on-sell the rights again to another buyer, while both remained unaware of the other's existence.
"Gows Heat and Mr Petroulias secured a significant windfall: he sold this "right", around six months later, and received around $1.1 million as a result," Mr Chen said.
One of the buyers was Sunshine Property Investment Group, owned by Chinese businessman Tony Zong.
The second buyer was Solstice Property Corporation Limited. In the case of that deal, Mr Chen alleged, the land being sold was not owned by the land council but the state of NSW.
Whether Awabakal's board was aware of these deals – and how they could go ahead without disclosure to the board – will be investigated by the inquiry.
“Obviously, the matters to be investigated by this inquiry are serious,” Mr Chen said.
The land council's administrator, Terry Lawler, took to the witness box on Tuesday afternoon, testifying that he found no copies of any agreements to sell Awabakal land when he was installed by the state government in 2016.
Mr Petroulias, representing himself, grilled Mr Lawler over what he told Awabakal members before they voted on one of the land deals.
"Did you mention that I was a criminal to the membership of the meeting?," he asked.
Mr Lawler responded that a solicitor acting for him may have, but added “fact’s facts”.
When he put the issue to a vote, there was a "sea of hands" against the proposal, Mr Lawler said.
“One of the members actually said: ‘are you a comedian?’,” he recalled.
Mr Lawler told the inquiry that when he was first made aware of the deal, involving a company called Advantage Property Experts Syndications, he “didn’t have any information” about whether it was a good or bad deal.
However he was stunned at proposals relating to the post office.
“The thing that did really strike me, and I remember thinking ‘this bloke’s delusional’, is that he said to me ‘part and parcel of this is we're going to do up the post office and hand it back to the NSW state government so as they’ll provide us with a strategic state development approval for the development of Hillsborough Road,” Mr Lawler told the inquiry.
“I found that an interesting statement, because that's just not the way things work.”
Mr Lawler also noticed a number of typos within the agreement.
“To be frank some of the agreements I found extremely difficult to read, understand, there were differing parties … one party on the cover sheet another party in the agreement, there were references to agreements even then that I hadn’t seen,” he said.
Mr Lawler claimed he has since been the target of abusive, defamatory and inaccurate letters and a “slanderous” social media campaign.
He alleged a businessman associated with Advantage and two other people stood outside a recent Awabakal meeting, handing out flyers making similar allegations.
“My local residential area was letter-boxed with those flyers that same evening and it’s clear from the Facebook post from Advantage that I’m being stalked,” he said.
“There are quite a lot of photos that are nothing other than me just going about my business.”
Mr Lawler has reported the matters to police.
The inquiry will examine the actions of two former Awabakal board members allegedly involved in the transactions – Richard Green and Debbie Dates – and Ms Bakis, a lawyer who executed the deals on the land council's behalf.
Mr Chen noted that Ms Bakis had been in an "on again off again" relationship with Mr Petroulias for about 20 years.
Neither Ms Bakis or Mr Petroulias were indigenous, Mr Chen said, and Ms Bakis had "no relevant experience" in undertaking the kind of work she was tasked to do by the land council.
Mr Chen described Ms Bakis’ appointment as “more than a little curious”, given that the land council had been making use of a “highly experienced” commercial and property lawyer.
He further alleged that Ms Bakis was appointed by Mr Green without the board’s authority until a motion to ratify her appointment more than a year later.
It’s understood that Ms Bakis will argue that she was always given to understand her appointment was authorised.
Mr Lawler told the hearing that when he was installed he did not find any records relating to Ms Bakis’ appointment and when he asked for them, it triggered a “flow” of abusive material.
“Abuse, complaints, accusations and being told that she’s not my secretary and that I’m a thief, it just goes on,” he said.
“I have never experienced – let alone from a professional person – I’ve never experienced the style in which Ms Bakis writes … clearly [she was] an angry little ant.”
The inquiry heard Mr Petroulias has adopted a string of aliases, including Nick Piers, Pearson and Petersen.