By Leonie Wood, May 26, 2006, The Age.COM.au
AN OFFICIAL request for help by Indian police investigating AWB's possible involvement in an Indian corruption scandal was never referred to the Australian Federal Police, Justice Minister Chris Ellison confirmed yesterday.
But commissioner Terence Cole, QC, who is investigating AWB's payment of $290 million of kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime, has requested his own meeting with AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty next week.
Mr Keelty yesterday told a Senate committee that Mr Cole had asked to meet him on June 1. He declined to say what they might discuss.
Mr Cole's final report on AWB's illicit payments to Iraq is not expected to be delivered to the Government for several weeks, but he may seek clarification about possible criminal charges that could be pursued.
Senator Ellison yesterday told the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Matters that in 2001, after fielding a mutual assistance request from India's Central Bureau of Investigations, the Australian Government deemed there was no evidence to justify any inquiries by local authorities into possible breaches of Australian law.
Indian's CBI was forced to close the investigation in January 2004, blaming "non-co-operation" from Australian authorities.
But AWB board papers now before the Cole inquiry show that in October 2001, when AWB was under pressure to co-operate with the CBI, the wheat seller had documents showing that it paid $US2.5 million to a Cayman Islands bank account in rela- tion to a 1998 wheat shipment.
In February 1998, India's STC bought $A310 million of wheat from AWB, which was then owned by the Australian Government. Indian politicians protested that the tender was extraordinary, and the CBI began investigating corruption allegations against three senior Indian government officials.
The Attorney-General's office last week told The Age that it made "appropriate inquiries" after India asked for help. It claims it fully co-operated with Indian officials but it has refused to say what inquiries were made at the time, who was notified, or if the Attorney-General's office contacted AWB about India's investigation.
Senator Ellison yesterday said the Federal Police had told him "that it did not receive such a referral". "No, because the allegations concerned Indian officials. There was no evidence to warrant a domestic investigation into possible Australian offences," Senator Ellison said.
The failure to refer the Indian matter to the federal police raises fresh questions about the unusually close relationship between AWB and the Government, whose ministers have repeatedly said that they trusted AWB.
In a joint statement yesterday, shadow attorney-general Nicola Roxon and spokesman for foreign affairs Kevin Rudd yesterday said Attorney-General Philip Ruddock should explain what actions his Government took to help the Indian authorities.
"Was it simply a phone call to the AWB to ask if they were paying bribes — the same method that we now know (Foreign Minister) Mr Downer and (Trade Minister) Mr Vaile used to use to check if AWB were up to no good?" they said.
However, another document before the Cole inquiry shows that in May 2004, just as the Volcker committee began investigating AWB for breaching UN trade sanctions against Iraq, an officer in the Attorney-General's Department knew some federal police officers were "keen to explore the possibility of an investigation by the AFP to see if AWB Ltd had broken any Australian laws" in its Iraq dealings.
An email tendered to the Cole inquiry shows Jonathan Chew of the Attorney-General's international law and transnational crime section told Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials that the AFP officers had expressed "some concern (that) despite Australia having anti-bribery/corruption laws in place for a number of years — I presume with extra-territorial applications — there had been few prosecutions".
Mr Chew's email appears to have recently been removed from the Cole inquiry's website.
Separately, Labor's shadow assistant treasurer Joel Fitzgibbon has renewed his call for the Government to stop AWB from claiming a tax deduction for the $290 million of kickbacks.
Labor wants the Tax Act and the Criminal Codes Act brought into line, so that payments that are deemed bribes under the Crimes Act could not be legitimate under Australia's tax laws.