THE corruption watchdog has obtained an email that appeared to propose the then deputy chair of the Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council should receive a $275,000 commission payment for helping broker a deal to sell off its land.
However it has been denied that any money was ever directly paid to former deputy chair Richard Green.
The ICAC is investigating his involvement in four deals to sell the land council's properties, in which disgraced former assistant tax commissioner Nick Petroulias is alleged to have played a “central role”.
Several former board members who served alongside Mr Green have told the inquiry the deals did not have board approval and Mr Green was never given any authority to execute them on the board’s behalf.
Deals involving the sale of Aboriginal land also require a green light from land council members and a dealing certificate from the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.
On Wednesday, the owner of a sushi business, Keith Rhee, took the stand. He was a middleman who introduced Sydney businessman Tony Zong – a prospective buyer of Awabakal’s land – to the vendors.
Mr Zong was enthusiastic about the purchase and agreed to drive to Newcastle to sign the sales agreements. It was then, Mr Rhee said, that he received a phone call from an irate Mr Petroulias, who threatened to cancel the signing unless he was paid.
Look back at the rest of the inquiry:
Mr Petroulias was expecting a payment of $250,000 for his own company to surrender its interest in the land, according to Mr Rhee.
“Mr Petroulias was very upset right, he was screaming … and carrying on,” Mr Rhee said.
Mr Rhee testified that his own company received $125,000 for its role in bringing the parties together, to be bumped to $2.4 million if the transaction proceeded to settlement.
Counsel assisting the commission, Nicholas Chen, SC, proceeded to show Mr Rhee a string of emails sent before the deal was executed.
One, from middleman Sammy Say, gave a breakdown of suggested payments for the individuals involved in the deal.
Mr Rhee agreed that part of the email that said “R 275” meant a proposed payment of $275,000 to Mr Green.
But he denied that the money was split in the way the email suggested, saying nobody took the proposal from Mr Say “seriously”.
“Mr Say was getting a bit excited because the deal was fairly close to being finalised and he dream about how the money should be paid,” Mr Rhee said.
Mr Chen countered that at least one of the payments set out in the email – the money designated for Mr Rhee's company – went ahead.
“So it wasn’t completely in another galaxy, it was accurate at least in that respect, wasn’t it?” Mr Chen asked.
“Well, some of it’s accurate, yeah, not all of it, no,” Mr Rhee responded.
Mr Rhee recalled that once Mr Zong had signed the agreement, he encountered difficulties in having council rezone the land, and they became aware of the need for a dealing certificate from the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.
Mr Rhee contacted Mr Petroulias, who said the certificate would be “forthcoming”. After that he went quiet, Mr Rhee recalled.
“I left many, many messages, text messages and voicemail messages and I just didn't get a call back,” Mr Rhee said.
Mr Rhee did hear from Mr Petroulias when Mr Zong launched court action in an attempt to recoup his money.
“He asked me … ‘how can we get this legal proceedings go away?’ and I said to him, ‘very simple, you just pay the money back to him’,” Mr Rhee recalled.
“And what did Mr Petroulias say to that?” Mr Chen asked.
“Mr Petroulias said ‘I’m not going to give the money back to him and he can do whatever he wants’,” Mr Rhee said.
In another conversation, Mr Rhee claims he was told “none of your business” when he pressed Mr Petroulias on where the $750,000 in payments Mr Zong had made to a trust account had ended up.
He also quizzed Mr Petroulias about $105,000 that had been paid to Mr Say and was allegedly told that was money that Mr Say was “entitled to”.
“I asked Mr Say, you know, why do you get $105,000?” Mr Rhee said.
“He said: ‘oh that was for services provided to Mr Petroulias going around all over New South Wales or all over eastern Australia looking for land council properties’ which, which I didn’t believe.”
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