Alleged procurement conflicts of interest between former government services and NDIS minister Stuart Robert and a consulting firm co-owned by a “longtime friend, business partner and political fundraiser” have been referred to the National Anti-Corruption Commission by a parliamentary committee.
The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit recommended that the recently established National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) investigate the matters in an interim report published on Wednesday.
It specifically calls on the NACC to “examine all material gathered through this inquiry to determine whether or not to conduct its own inquiry into procurements at Services Australia and the National Disability Insurance Agency involving Milo Consulting (trading as Synergy 360), the Hon Stuart Robert, and John Margerison,” the report reads.
However, the report notes that the committee was “not making any findings in relation to the conduct of any individuals”.
In his foreword to the report, committee chair and Labor MP Julian Hill said “concerning evidence has been received raising serious allegations and questions about financial impropriety, improper relationships and undisclosed conflicts of interest with parties receiving contracts from the Commonwealth”.
“A referral to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) by a Parliamentary Committee should never be made lightly and certainly is not done so here. In these circumstances, however, there appears no other appropriate course of action,” Mr Hill added.
Mr Hill said that while the committee has “established a number of matters” it has been limited by resourcing, a lack of forensic accounting expertise, and uncooperating key witnesses “to make clear findings as to the truth”.
“An agency with compulsory questioning, document gathering, and investigatory powers may be able to properly assess these matters.”
Since May, the committee has undertaken an inquiry into procurement at Services Australia and the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) relating to Synergy 360, specifically with regard to the findings of a review produced by former Department of Prime Minister secretary Dr Ian Watt, which was released at the end of March.
The Watt review found that 19 of the 95 procurements within the scope of the review warranted further investigation. This followed an expansion of an earlier inquiry on Commonwealth procurement more broadly, which considered the findings of a review into the Synergy 360-linked procurements.
Mr Robert was government services and NDIS minister between the end of May 2019 and March 2021. He resigned from parliament on in May, as allegations compounded. Allegations Mr Roberts was inappropriately involved with procurements relating to Synergy 360 clients first emerged in December 2022, with further reviews and inquiries unearthing more details.
Evidence cited in the interim report includes the payment of $16 million of contract success fees from tech multinational Infosys to Synergy 360. Several meetings between Mr Robert and Infosys were held, including while the firm was bidding for government work and during its delivery of the now-defunct Centrelink welfare calculator.
It also includes evidence from another co-founder of Synergy 360 Anthony Daly that an arrangement through Margerison-owned United Marketing was set up to funnel money to Mr Roberts.
“The main objective of this arrangement was to secure Stuart Robert’s involvement and support in acquiring federal government contracts. Stuart Robert’s political influence and connections within the government sector were deemed crucial in ensuring favourable outcomes,” Mr Daly told the committee under parliamentary privilege.
Mr Roberts and his “longtime friend, business partner and political fundraiser” former Synergy360 part-owner John Margerison, have denied the “allegations relating to improper conduct”. Wrongdoing has also been denied by former part-owner and Mr Robert’s friend David Milo and former part-owner and ex-partner of Mr Daly, Khamphone Xaysavanh.
However, the committee “notes that nothing came to its attention that suggests Ms Xaysavanh was involved in any misconduct with respect to APS procurement”.
After appearing before a committee hearing in April, Mr Margerison failed to respond to subsequent questions, and failed to appear before a public hearing despite at the end of July.
Mr Margerison’s legal counsel later informed the committee that he had “severed all ties” with Australia and resided overseas, although no evidence was provided to support these claims. He has yet to provide requested documents, answer committee questions, or disclose his whereabouts.
The other recommendation of the interim report seeks approval for legal advice on the statutory powers of the committee “including but not limited to situations in which a person claims to be resident overseas”.
The NACC referral has been made on the same day as the commission announced it has opened two investigation, although the nature of these investigations have not been disclosed. Since the commission officially launched on July 1, it has received 908 referrals.
Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.