Revealed: Julia Gillard lost her job after law firm's secret investigation
NATIONAL CHIEF CORRESPONDENT
August 18, 2012
JULIA Gillard left her job as a partner with law firm Slater & Gordon as a direct result of a secret internal probe in 1995 into controversial work she had done for her then boyfriend, a union boss accused of corruption, The Weekend Australian can reveal.
Nick Styant-Browne, a former equity partner of the firm, broke a 17-year silence yesterday to reveal that the firm's probe included a confidential formal interview with the Prime Minister - then an industrial lawyer - on September 11, 1995, which was "recorded and transcribed".
In the interview, Ms Gillard stated that she could not categorically rule out that she had personally benefited from union funds in the renovation of her Melbourne house, according to Mr Styant-Browne.
She said in the interview that she believed she had paid for all the work and materials, and had receipts, which she later produced.
The firm's probe revolved around Ms Gillard's work since mid-1992 for the Australian Workers Union and her then boyfriend - the AWU's ambitious leader at the time, Bruce Wilson - as well as her direct role in establishing the AWU Workplace Reform Association for Mr Wilson.
The controversy that won't go away
Mr Styant-Browne's revelations today mark the first time that anyone among the former and present partners of her employer before she started her political career has spoken on the record about matters that have controversially dogged Ms Gillard since 1995.
Mr Styant-Browne, now a Seattle-based lawyer, said the partnership "took a very serious view" of these and other matters, "and accepted her resignation".
"The firm was scrupulous to ensure these matters were both properly investigated and Ms Gillard was given every opportunity to explain her involvement," Mr Styant-Browne said. "Ms Gillard conveyed to me that she thought she had been 'shabbily' treated after eight years of service."
In response to a series of detailed questions from The Weekend Australian, a spokesman for Ms Gillard said last night she had "made clear that she was not involved in any wrongdoing, and has dealt with these allegations previously". "The Prime Minister maintains good relations with Slater & Gordon," he said.
The legal entity that Ms Gillard began to establish for Mr Wilson from mid-1992 was used by Mr Wilson and his then friend, AWU bagman and West Australian branch head Ralph Blewitt, to allegedly corruptly receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from large companies.
The companies were told their money would pay for safety and training of AWU members on major work sites. However, the funds were allegedly siphoned off for purposes including the personal use of Mr Wilson and Mr Blewitt. At the time, the AWU's then national leaders, Ian Cambridge and Bill Ludwig, were not made aware of the entity's existence. They were unaware that large sums of money had been going into accounts linked to the association, and that those funds were subsequently withdrawn by Mr Wilson and Mr Blewitt for purposes including the purchase of a $230,000 house in Kerr Street, Fitzroy. Mr Cambridge called on the federal Labor government to establish a royal commission into what he regarded as serious and criminal rorting by union officials.
Ms Gillard has repeatedly and strenuously denied that she had any knowledge of what the association that she had set up was going to be used for. She has also denied receiving any benefit from the funds. She has repeatedly rejected claims made in parliament that renovations to her own house in Melbourne in the early-to-mid 1990s were part-funded by money allegedly siphoned off by Mr Wilson.
Mr Styant-Browne revealed yesterday that Ms Gillard had said in her formal interview on September 11, 1995, that "she could not categorically deny AWU union or (AWU) Workplace Reform Association monies" had been used in the renovation of her own house in Melbourne. He said she had subsequently produced receipts for work done on the Abbotsford property.
In a two-page statement to The Weekend Australian, Mr Styant-Browne also revealed unusual circumstances surrounding what he described as Ms Gillard's "legal and related work to establish the AWU Workplace Reform Association in Western Australia".
He said that in her formal interview, Ms Gillard had confirmed that "she did not open a file at the firm" to establish the association, and that she could not at the time recall any reason why a file was not opened. He said that she had stated that no other lawyer at the firm worked on the matter, and "to her recollection, no other lawyer was consulted". She stated in the interview that she "was not involved in opening or operating any bank accounts for the association," Mr Styant-Browne said.
Referring to the recorded interview, Mr Styant-Browne said: "She understood the purpose of the association was to hold re-election funds for union officials contributed by individual union members and fundraisers. She stated it was referred to as a re-election or slush fund. She had been in a relationship with Mr Wilson for nearly four years commencing in late 1991.
"She and Mr Wilson attended the auction of 85 Kerr Street, Fitzroy in early 1993 where Mr Wilson made a successful bid for the house which was purchased in the name of Ralph Blewitt. Mr Blewitt did not attend the auction. She understood the house was a property investment made by Mr Blewitt, and that Mr Wilson would live there as a trusted tenant. She believed this arrangement suited them both.
"She had extensively renovated her own house in Abbotsford. Mr Wilson had assisted in the renovations. She believed she had paid for all the work and materials, and had receipts which she agreed to produce. She was aware someone had sought payment from the AWU for work and materials he had supplied for the house. He was mistaken or misinformed. But she could not categorically deny AWU union or Workplace Association monies had been used for any of the work. As at the time of the interview, her relationship with Mr Wilson had recently ended."
Mr Styant-Browne said the conduct of Slater & Gordon in waiving its conveyancing fee for the purchase of the Fitzroy house and lending $150,000 to complete the sale was not unusual.
"Like many law firms, Slater & Gordon regularly did discounted or free conveyances for clients who held office in its client corporations or organisations. Like any labour law firm, the fees for these conveyances for union officials were regularly waived, " he said.
"Slater & Gordon conducted a solicitors' contributory mortgage practice, which made loans secured by first mortgage over properties up to a percentage of a sworn valuation obtained for the specific purpose of the loan. A partner of the firm was designated as the trustee for the mortgage on behalf of the contributors, and signed the mortgage in that capacity. Legal fees or disbursements for the mortgage formed part of the loan, as was the case for the Kerr Street mortgage. The Kerr Street conveyance and mortgage were both unexceptionable transactions for the firm's conveyancing and mortgage practice.
"As for the florid allegations suggesting a cover-up by Slater & Gordon made in some radio interviews and online media, they are utterly absurd."
Explaining his reasons for speaking out after a long silence, Mr Styant-Browne, 54, who is not a member of any political party, said: "It has recently become clear to me that there is a genuine public interest in this story, which has prompted my statement now".
The Australian revealed earlier this month that Mr Wilson's former close friend, Mr Blewitt, wanted to expose the extent of his alleged scam with Mr Wilson, and that he would admit his own wrongdoing if he received an indemnity from prosecution. Mr Blewitt, 66, said: "My greatest fear is that I incriminate myself but this has to come out now".
The Australian has also reported that internal documents, newly released under Freedom of Information, from an exhaustive police probe at the time show detectives suspected Mr Wilson and Mr Blewitt, were "crooks" and wanted them criminally prosecuted over a $400,000-plus alleged fraud. The documents from the police file include letters showing leaders of the AWU, which remains the most influential industrial supporter of the federal Labor government, were deeply annoyed that the two men were not charged with criminal offences.
The managing director of Slater & Gordon, Andrew Grech, has begun contacting its former clients including Mr Blewitt, Mr Wilson and the AWU, "asking that they agree to waive their right to legal privilege attaching to lawyer-client communication so that we can respond to the public allegations that have been made".
"We are not prepared to have our firm's reputation impugned by the allegations relating to these matters, which occurred almost two decades ago," Mr Grech told The Australian last week.
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