Former Labor minister Adem Somyurek has conceded some of his actions could be categorised as corruption, while admitting he lost all perspective during a factional war and should be condemned for his behaviour.
On the second day of his appearance before the state’s anti-corruption commission, Mr Somyurek agreed he was involved in the practice of paying electorate staff who worked on factional activities, but he denied he was part of a scheme that endorsed widespread rorting of public money, rejecting the evidence of a former staffer who told the commission in a private hearing he was told not to go to the electorate office.
Former minister Adem Somyurek at the IBAC hearing on Tuesday.
The Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission was shown evidence that Mr Somyurek had signed time sheets for a casual staffer who was explicitly asked to work that day on the factional activity of “fixing member discrepancies”.
“Misuse of taxpayer resources, that’s what it is,” counsel assisting Chris Carr, SC, said. “You lied on the time sheets, and you know what he’s doing is ‘fixing member discrepancies’. What about that is not corruption, Mr Somyurek?”
Mr Somyurek responded: “Yes, OK.”
The former Labor Party powerbroker, who left the party after The Age and 60 Minutes last year revealed a widespread branch stacking operation, is being investigated as part of an IBAC and Victorian Ombudsman probe into what Mr Carr has described as the “premeditated and systematic rorting of taxpayer resources”.
Mr Somyurek did not accept all the allegations of corruption levelled against him, but conceded he had “lost all perspective” in his war against the Socialist Left, and that the attitude at the time was the ends justified the means.
“Yes. I’m not going to fight on this issue. There’s footage of me on 60 Minutes. I lost all perspective. You can condemn me in the strongest possible terms,” he said.
His appearance was again punctuated by Commissioner Robert Redlich warning the former minister to answer Mr Carr’s questions succinctly.
“Quite frankly in the last hour I have had great difficulty following any of your answers because they are so lengthy, convoluted and around the point, by the end of your answer, I’ve got no idea what you’re actually saying in response to the question,” Mr Redlich said.
IBAC heard tapped phone recordings between Mr Somyurek and former Banyule mayor Rick Garotti in which they discussed whether their phone conversations were being intercepted by the anti-corruption commission. Mr Garotti told the dumped minister: “Well, it’s scary mate, the territory we’re in.”
Mr Somyurek rationalised the employment of casual staffers in his quiet electorate office by saying he was not using his other parliamentary allowances. He also told a state MP her father was being employed in the federal office of Labor MP Anthony Byrne even though the man “was not turning up to work”.
Mr Somyurek downplayed the significance of his activities, insisting the misuse of taxpayer-funded staff for a few hours was not comparable to the “gold standard rort” of the red shirts scandal, in which Labor misused $388,000 in public funds to pay campaign staff working on the 2014 election campaign.
The Moderate Labor faction ramped up its branch stacking activities in 2019 because they believed the opposing group, the Socialist Left, had signed up hundreds of new members, according to Mr Somyurek.
In a recording of a March 2020 conversation played during Mr Somyurek’s evidence, a Moderate Labor factional operative told him the signatures on the membership forms were “significantly different” to the signatures in a Labor Party branch attendance book.
“F—,” Mr Somyurek told them in response. “Do people check that much?”
Mr Carr contended the signatures on the forms were forged as part of a recruitment drive of fake members and that “forging signatures is a bit more serious than just not caring about the rules of a political organisation”.
“This is an attitude that is embodied by that common phrase ‘the end justifies the means’,” Mr Carr said.
IBAC Commissioner Robert Redlich reminded Mr Somyurek to answer Mr Carr’s questions succinctly on Tuesday.
Former Labor staffer, Jacob Cripps, told IBAC in private hearings he was employed by Mr Somyurek as a casual electorate officer but was explicitly told not to go to the electorate office.
Mr Somyurek rejected the allegation, saying there was “no way” he would employ someone and tell them not to turn up to work. He said there was very little constituency work, but he expected all his staff to come to the office, answer telephone calls, respond to emails and greet people walking in.
But he did accept he never told his staff “thou shalt not do factional working during working hours”. It was a culture “deeply embedded” within the Labor Party, he said, and parliamentarians needed to engage in party-political activity if they wanted to retain their seats.
“I got initiated into this culture and it was all intertwined. It’s all been intertwined, anyway I’ll leave it at that,” he said.
Adem Somyurek told factional ally Rick Garotti IBAC was probably investigating him and that Hussein Haraco (pictured) should log into his computer. Credit:Jason South
Mr Somyurek agreed with Mr Carr’s assessment that paying a staffer who did not come to work “would be the most egregious form of corruption”.
IBAC showed evidence that Mr Somyurek had signed time sheets for a casual staffer, Salazar Youhorn, who was directed by the former minister to work on factional activities on that specific day.
Separately, Mr Somyurek and fellow Labor MP Meng Heang Tak also signed time sheets for Mr Youhorn, in which they both indicated he was working for them on the same day. Mr Carr said the time sheet signed by Mr Tak seemed more accurate, while Mr Somyurek said he did not have great oversight of his employees in his electorate office.
IBAC also showed evidence Hussein Haraco, who the commission earlier heard had allegedly pocketed taxpayer grants, was paid for five full days of work in late May and early June during COIVD-19 lockdowns but did not “even so much as log in to his computer”.
In a phone call tapped by IBAC, Mr Somyurek told Mr Garotti to be careful and that the commission could be listening to his phone calls, and that his staff, namely Dr Haraco, should at the very least log in to his computer.
“And Hussein’s just gotta be careful of everything, you know, um, I’m sure he is, but I just need him really careful,” Mr Somyurek said. “But what I’m saying is they already do their own thing and they can just, I just need, you know, just, they just need to be very careful. And logging in. I’m not sure if he logs in. That, that’s the thing, you know.”
Mr Somyurek rejected evidence given by others to the commission, including former minister and factional ally Marlene Kairouz, that he had control over who was employed in the offices of other MPs. Ms Kairouz told IBAC Mr Somyurek had a “dominant role” over staffing decisions, while she and former minister Robin Scott had “some influence”.
The hearings continue on Thursday.
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