AN investigation into an alleged NSW Government leak of a mining company’s confidential exploration licence information to a rival company in 2017 could not make a finding on possible corruption because of inadequacies in the state’s mining titles database.
A Department of Planning internal investigation identified “potential corruption risks which cannot be ignored” after it could not definitively determine if a leak had occurred because the department’s mining titles database had no auditing capability.
But the director of professional standards who filed the report on December 22, 2017 recommending action “to take place without delay” because of potential corruption risks was sacked five months later when her position was abolished.
The Department of Planning confirmed on Friday it no longer has “specific investigators” within the department “as we outsource these activities to independent external investigators”.
The investigation into the alleged leak was launched after a mining company’s application for special leave to renew a 1993 exploration licence over 10 lots in February, 2017 was rejected, and it was directed to relinquish five of the lots as required under the Mining Act.
The mining company contacted the department after a rival company applied for an exploration licence over the five lots before the information was made public, and after lengthy communications with the department.
“I can confirm that the information ‘leaked’ for the exploration licence applications could have only come from the documentation provided as part of the renewal application, which we understood to be confidential,” the mining company wrote in an email to two department staff.
I can confirm that the information ‘leaked’ for the exploration licence applications could have only come from the documentation provided as part of the renewal application, which we understood to be confidential.- Mining company to Department of Planning in 2017.
The complaint was raised with the professional standards director by the then titles operations manager Rebecca Connor, who was sacked in May within days of the sacking of the professional standards director.
A subsequent investigation included a statement from a mining industry representative for the rival company, who alleged the application for the exact lots after more than two decades with its rival, and during a period when it was negotiating with the department to relinquish them, occurred because the information appeared on the department’s public portal on February 14, 2017.
A department Titles Administration System (TAS) administrator told investigators there had been an “incorrect data entry”, but the system did not hold information about the relinquished mining lots until late May.
“Any potential ‘leaking’ of the dropped lots could not be from people accessing information from TAS,” the administrator said.
A department investigation report found there were “no reasonable grounds to suggest or identify that corrupt or unethical conduct by any person” had taken place, after an investigator was unable to confirm what material was on the titles public portal on February 14, 2017 because of inadequate database audit capabilities. In a quality review of the investigation by two senior department executives, including the professional standards director, serious concerns were raised about potential corruption risks within the system.
The department’s division of resources and geoscience responsible for titles was “unable to confirm with sufficient weight what data was actually recorded and published on February 14, 2017”, the quality review found. The professional standards director said investigators were faced with two versions of the facts, and the rival company’s version could not be challenged because of the database issues.
“I note, however, that the investigation has identified potential corruption risks which cannot be ignored. An absence of sufficient audit capability within the systems which house titles information means confidential and highly commercially valuable information may be compromised,” the professional standards director found.
I note, however, that the investigation has identified potential corruption risks which cannot be ignored. An absence of sufficient audit capability within the systems which house titles information means confidential and highly commercially valuable information may be compromised.- Department of Planning professional standards director.
She recommended an urgent review and implementation of an “adequate audit trail” so that “changes to systems data are documented”.
In a 2016 document seen by the Newcastle Herald a department employee warned the newly-appointed titles operations manager Rebecca Connor about concerns relating to the database system, access to it, and mining industry representatives who were “knowledgeable and know our weak points”.
Ms Connor was sacked two years later after repeatedly raising corruption risks and allegations.
In a statement on Friday the department said the lack of audit trail in the MinView public portal was identified as a “primary risk”.
Problems with the database were being addressed by a “$10 million investment in the titles administration system that sees outdated systems upgraded with new database systems”, the department said.
“An audit trail is built into the workflow, every user will possess a unique verified log in and transactions will be time and date stamped with the nature of the action recorded and any access of records by any officer tracked.”
Lock the Gate, the NSW Opposition and others have called for a judicial inquiry into the department’s mining administration.
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