FIFTEEN years ago, a Merewether Heights solicitor, Brien Cornwell, was making a prominent name for himself in the Hunter as a developer.
An 8.4hectare site at Nelson Bay was being readied for a gated community of duplexes valued at up to $75million.
He turned a former Hunter Health building opposite Royal Newcastle Hospital into a backpackers’ hostel.
A Cornwell company bought the old Commonwealth Employment Service building at the intersection of King and Darby streets and turned it into the Irish pub MJ Finnegans.
He and a partner bought the legendary Newcastle West entertainment venue the Palais Royale – nowadays the city’s KFC outlet – with plans for apartments and commercial space. But a series of delays to the Port Stephens project, especially, led to financial problems.
The Palais development failed in 2008 as did the Nelson Bay development a year later, and Mr Cornwell found himself under fire in federal parliament in 2010 when Senators Nick Xenephon and Barnaby Joyce made allegations against him in parliament.
The two senators accused Mr Cornwell of living in luxury while 10 investors owed more than $750,000 waited for the money he promised them in an undertaking signed after the Australian Securities and Investments Commission stepped in.
By this stage Mr Cornwell had also lost the right to practice as a solicitor for five years, over what he described as a failure to reconcile a trust account.
In September 2010, his son Andrew Stuart Cornwell won preselection as the Liberal candidate for the state seat of Charlestown, and the focus switched from the failed developer to the Cardiff vet turned politician.
Until this week, with his naming as an early witness in the latest hearings before the ICAC.
Mr Cornwell senior said yesterday he could not talk about what ICAC wanted from him, but he was confident it had nothing to do with his son’s 2011 election campaign. Similarly, he doubted ICAC was interested in any historical donations.
The 68-year-old said he had not been a Liberal Party member for more than 20 years, although he helped set up the Merewether branch in 1974.
Mr Cornwell senior said he had ‘‘door-knocked’’ for his son and for Newcastle state MP Tim Owen, but had done nothing more.
‘‘Whatever ICAC’s going to ask me, I imagine it is fairly insignificant,’’ Mr Cornwell senior said.
He confirmed the Palais investors remained unpaid, but said ASIC had taken no further action over the matter.
He said some people had tried to use his business difficulties to discredit his son, but it had not worked.