NSW MPs have grilled horse sport officials and a business owner involved in a $1m government contract marred by accusations of conflicts of interest and a “quid pro quo” side deal.
The contract to replace the surface at Sydney’s Olympic equestrian centre was sought by Equestrian NSW (ENSW) and awarded by the government’s Office of Sport in 2017.
The project first became controversial because the contractor chosen to carry it out, Barry Smith Motor Sports, has a familial connection to the then-chair of ENSW.
The deal previously got the attention of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which made an assessment but decided not to investigate.
Camera IconThe Sydney International Equestrian Centre at Horsley Park was used during the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. Credit: News Corp Australia, by Leigh Winburn.
On Monday, a NSW parliamentary inquiry quizzed Barry Smith and officials from the Office of Sport and ENSW over the contract.
Mr Smith had been contracted to produce fresh material to spread over the surface that the horses at the Sydney International Equestrian Centre would move across.
However, he instead partly used material repurposed from another private facility owned by an ENSW board member, the inquiry heard.
Mr Smith described the decision to take the material from the Southern Highlands property owned by the ENSW board member, Alex Townsend, as a “quid pro quo”.
The material had originally been installed there by the German equestrian facility company Otto Sports, with which Mr Smith had partnered on some projects.
“Effectively it was a quid quo pro thing, we used a surface that Otto had installed at Alex's place, and so I provided them with the sand and the fabric content, which they then used to replace the surface,” Mr Smith told the inquiry.
He said he never told the Office of Sport about the switcheroo because he didn't anticipate there would be any problems with it.
However, it was later discovered when it rained on the material he had removed from Ms Townsend’s property that it contained thousands of small rubber bits known as grommets.
“The first we knew about the rubber grommets was when Sydney International Equestrian Centre staff saw them,” Office of Sport chief executive Karen Jones, who moved into that role after the contract was awarded, told the inquiry.
Mr Smith was later called to a meeting with the Office of Sport and told he would have to remediate the surface and that his company was to pay for it.
But rubber grommets are still being found regularly in the material, Ms Jones said.
The inquiry heard equestrian centre officials regularly turned over the surface before events, and then walked barefoot across it to look for foreign materials, including grommets.
Camera IconThe centre is still used for events such as dressage. Credit: Supplied
Ms Jones said the Office of Sport had revised its conflict of interest procedures after the ICAC’s assessment of the contract.
With hindsight, Ms Jones said she would have considered cancelling the contract if she had been in charge at the time.
Mr Smith in his evidence denied he had “failed” in his obligations under the contract and also said he rejected the description of the surface material as “second-hand”, arguing it qualified as brand new.
One Nation MP Mark Latham, who is a member of the committee holding the inquiry and who has led the push to probe the contract, said there would be another hearing and many question marks remained.
“The evidence raises many more questions we will seek to clarify with Alex Townsend at the next hearing day,” he told NCA NewsWire.Internet Explorer Channel Network