Fake letters authorised huge payments

A former senior WA public servant could face prosecution after a corruption probe found she wrote fake letters facilitating payments worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to public officers including the former head of the state’s Potato Marketing Corporation.

Felicity Heffernan was director of the legal and commercial division at the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development between 2016-18. She resigned in the middle of 2018 following an internal investigation.

The West Australian Corruption and Crime Commission, which has concluded a subsequent 12-month investigation into Ms Heffernan, found she falsified records, defied cabinet decisions and “recklessly failed to comply with proper procedure”.

Her behaviour resulted in the unauthorised expenditure of a “significant amount of public funds”, the CCC said in the report handed down on Friday.

“As a senior public servant and a lawyer, Ms Heffernan ought to have epitomised honesty and integrity and acted in DPIRD’s best interest, not least because she was in a position of trust and given great autonomy,” the report said.

“Instead she dishonestly brought about situations where significant, unauthorised payments were paid to two individuals by preparing false letters of engagement.”

In one case she circumvented a public sector recruitment freeze by enabling plant intellectual property expert Dr Howard Carr to continue to be paid at a rate of $1,000 a day after his employment had ended. This involved writing and backdating a false letter of engagement to facilitate payments of more than $100,000.

In a second case, Ms Heffernan wrote another sham letter facilitating a $400,000 redundancy payment  and $100,000 consultancy fee to the former CEO of the now defunct Potato Marketing Board, Peter Evans.

Mr Evans was supposed to have transferred to another department following the fallout from the Tony Galati “potato wars” that ended in 2016, but instead was hired as consultant  to assist with ongoing litigation related to the dispute.

“The extent to which Mr Evans fulfilled his consultancy role having regard to the hours claimed is open to doubt,” the report says. He was also not a lawyer, it notes.

The CCR said Ms Heffernan resigned during a departmental disciplinary investigation last year.

“The Commission all too often sees public officers resign without consequence during a disciplinary process. Occasionally, this has led to these officers being employed in other parts of the public sector without the earlier matters being resolved,” the report says.

“There is a significant misconduct risk without a central database of allegations and details of whether or not they have been resolved. The Public Sector Commission might give consideration to this matter.”

The report said the CCC said while not having the ability to make a finding of corrupt or criminal conduct it considered Ms Heffernan had engaged in serious misconduct and recommended an appropriate agency consider prosecution.

In a statement to the West Australian newspaper Ms Heffernan described the findings as “manifestly inaccurate”.

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