Report wants corruption probe of procurement at Services Australia

A parliamentary committee has recommended that the new national anti-corruption watchdog investigate matters relating to procurement and the use of consulting firms by Services Australia and the NDIA.

JCPAA Chair Julian HIll

The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit (JCPAA) says it found concerning reports of alleged financial impropriety, improper relationships and undisclosed conflicts of interest in relation to contracts, including allegations concerning the former minister Stuart Robert and consulting firm Synergy 360.

However the Committee says it wasn’t able to make ‘clear findings’ about the truth because of the disappearance of a key witness who claimed to have left Australia, and a failure to obtain documents from parties involved.

“The report recommends that the NACC examine the evidence gathered by the Committee to date to determine whether to conduct a fuller investigation to establish the substance of the serious allegations made in relation to former (Mr) Robert and Synergy 360,” the JCPAA says.

Mr Robert, political fundraiser John Margerison and Synergy 360 principal David Milo have strongly denied improper conduct, the Committee notes.

Questions around procurements

The investigation follows an independent review of Services Australia and NDIA procurement and contracting which found undisclosed conflicts of interest, lack of value for money and insufficient record keeping in 19 procurements worth about $374 million.

The report by Dr Ian Watt, released in March 2023, found “poor practices and close relationships between some APS officials and suppliers and those relationships were not always managed effectively.”

In May 2023 the JCPAA announced a new inquiry following on from the Watt review, to look at procurement issues relating to Synergy 360 and Mr Robert.

In June 2023 the Committee heard IT company Infosys paid Synergy 360 some $16 million over 5 years for State and Federal linked projects including retainers, ‘success fees’ and ‘business development’ work.

The companies also held meetings with Mr Robert to discuss major projects and digital transformation, sometimes without public servants present.

Public hearings revealed previously undisclosed meetings between Mr Robert, Synergy 360 and Infosys, including during a tender process.

In an interim report tabled on Wednesday, the JCPAA said the meetings raised “matters of concern”.

“There is no evidence of probity advisors or public servants being present at 11 meetings, no contemporaneous notes or records of what was discussed made available, no apparent declaration of any conflicts of interest being made, and no evidence that other bidders or vendors unrelated to Synergy 360 were accorded similar treatment or access,” the report says.

Midway through hearings the Committee said John Margerison, a part-owner of Synergy and understood to be a friend of Mr Robert, had left the country after being ordered to provide documents and evidence, and couldn’t be contacted.

Investigations frustrated

The report says the committee’s investigations were frustrated by a failure of witnesses to produce documents or answer questions, as well as Mr Margerison’s claimed departure from Australia.

“In these circumstances this Committee is not able, given the resources available to it including a lack of forensic accounting expertise, to make clear findings in relation to the truth or otherwise of the allegations raised,” it says.

“The Committee therefore considers that, in light of the serious and systemic nature of the allegations, an agency with compulsory questioning and document gathering and investigatory powers should take up the matter so that these questions may be properly assessed.”

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