ICAC: Liberal official gave cheques to energy minister Chris Hartcher

ON THE STAND: Political fund-raiser John Caputo leaves the ICAC inquiry after giving evidence yesterday.  Picture: Rob Homer
ON THE STAND: Political fund-raiser John Caputo leaves the ICAC inquiry after giving evidence yesterday. Picture: Rob Homer

A LIBERAL Party official linked to Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Premier Mike Baird has come under fire at a corruption inquiry over thousands of dollars in cheques he gave to former state energy minister Chris Hartcher.

John Caputo, a fund-raiser for Mr Abbott and Mr Baird and a former mayor of Warringah, admitted at the Independent Commission Against Corruption yesterday that it was a ‘‘diversion’’ from normal practice to give donations made out to the NSW Liberal Party directly to Mr Hartcher.

This included cheques handed over by donors at a March 2011 fund-raising dinner attended by Mr Hartcher and former attorney-general Greg Smith.

Junior counsel assisting the commission Greg O’Mahoney asked whether it ‘‘sounds a bit like a fraud’’ that cheques made out to the NSW Liberals were not given first to head office or its treasurer, as Mr Caputo said was the normal practice. 

‘‘No,’’ Mr Caputo replied.

He said Liberal Party donations were sometimes given directly to particular regions, but he struggled to recall other examples.

The ICAC is investigating allegations that Mr Hartcher and his associates set up slush funds to receive illegal donations from property developers and other sources. 

The commission heard allegations on Wednesday that an ‘‘avidly anti-socialist’’ accountant called Timothy Trumbull, an associate of Mr Caputo, subverted the $5000 cap on personal political donations by using his employees as ‘‘fronts’’.

Three cheques totalling $4000, signed by Mr Trumbull’s backpacker employees who were not entitled to vote, were given by Mr Trumbull to Mr Caputo in 2011.

Mr Caputo said Mr Hartcher, the member for Terrigal, later asked him for money to fund the state campaign for seats on the Central Coast. He gave him the cheques, which were made out to the NSW Liberal Party.

The inquiry has heard that Mr Hartcher waited nine months before laundering the cheques through the trust account of his old law firm. The money was then paid into an alleged slush fund, Micky Tech, run by his former electorate officer Ray Carter.

‘‘You’re so nonchalant about the fact that you’re in the middle of it,’’ Mr O’Mahoney told Mr Caputo.

‘‘Of course it’s not a good look at all,’’ Mr Caputo replied. He said he had ‘‘no idea’’ about the alleged slush fund and was not aware Mr Trumbull had exceeded the cap.

Mr Caputo is a committee member of Mr Abbott’s Warringah federal electorate conference and vice-president of Mr Baird’s Manly state electoral conference.