Embattled minister denies ‘grand conspiracy’ over public servant’s activities

Embattled NSW transport minister Jo Haylen has sidestepped questions about whether she was aware of the partisan activities of a public servant employed in her department, or if the growing scandal was linked to the departure of her chief of staff.

Transport minister Jo Haylen: grilled over what she knew

Ms Haylen was grilled during budget estimates on Tuesday over how much she knew about political activities undertaken by Kieren Ash while he was employed as a department liaison officer (DLO) until September 11.

The minister admitted to having previously met Mr Ash, a former Labor candidate and campaign manager, but denied personally requesting his employment, despite celebrating it with love heart emojis on social media.

Ms Haylen said her chief of staff Scott Gartrell, whom she said resigned last Friday to pursue other interests including goat and llama farming, was responsible for employing Mr Ash.

Asked why Mr Gartrell resigned, Ms Haylen said: “he offered his resignation and I accepted it”.

Opposition MP Damien Tudehope said: “in a week where the decision making in relation to the performance of what a DLO in your office was doing, in relation to political  material, your chief of staff resigns.

“Are you seriously telling us that in relation to that resignation there was no discussion in respect of issues relating to the DLO?”

Ms Haylen said she wasn’t going to recount a private conversation.

Mr Tudehope put to her that Mr Gartrell was being used as a scapegoat. “I reject that,” Ms Haylen said.

‘Emails of concern’ blurred the line

Transport head Josh Murray: emails referred for review

Ms Haylen refused to directly answer whether she had been aware Mr Ash was doing political work despite repeated questioning from committee members.

“My experience of the public servant’s work…. was that he was in line with his role,” she said.

However she said “a small number of emails of concern” relating to work done by Mr Ash that have since emerged may indicate a “blurring of the lines between this public servant’s role as DLO and their personal political views”.

The emails had been been referred to the transport secretary Josh Murray, who himself has been the subject of controversy for having previously made donation to the minister’s campaign.

Heated scenes erupted in the hearing room when Ms Ward replied “it’s your Labor donor mate investigating your Labor donor mate”.

Ms Haylen also dismissed questions about why she posted love heart emojis to celebrate Mr Ash’s secondment to the department.

“Are we really going to talk about social media posts?” she asked.

“We actually are because…it’s a very serious matter about misuse of taxpayer funds,” Opposition transport spokeswoman Natalie Ward said. “This is not a joke.”

Concerns raised by senior bureaucrats

The committee heard that both acting transport secretary Howard Collins and Transport for NSW chief of staff Susan Carroll raised concerns about Mr Ash’s work with Ms Haylen’s office.

Ms Ward said: “Minister, your chief of staff knew,  your deputy chief of staff knew, the department knew, the premier’s office knew, and you are saying you did not know Keiran Ash was undertaking political work?”

“I reject your characterisation that somehow everyone knew” Ms Haylen said. “I reject the assertion that somehow there is some grand conspiracy here.”

She admitted with respect Mr Ash’s employment that “we could have done better”, but said at the time she keen to begin work and Mr Gartrell was trying to set up her office quickly.

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