The Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) has finalised its investigation into several allegations of corrupt conduct relating to Councillor Kate Richards. The CCC has determined there is not sufficient evidence to substantiate any of the allegations or proceed with criminal offences against any person. An element of the definition of corrupt conduct as it relates to elected officials, including local councillors, is that the conduct must, if proved, be a criminal offence. The CCC will therefore take no action against Councillor Richards.
One of the allegations investigated by the CCC related to Councillor Richards allegedly misusing grant funding obtained from the Lord Mayor’s Suburban Initiative Fund (LMSIF) that was provided to the Kenmore-Moggill sub-branch of the Returned Services League (RSL) for events and community cricket matches. It was alleged that she imposed a condition requiring the funding to be applied to engage a specific business owned and operated by a personal friend. During the course of the CCC’s investigation, a number of witnesses were interviewed and relevant documents were examined. Councillor Richards was also voluntarily interviewed by CCC officers and provided information and some material to the CCC, while denying the allegation.
As a result of the interviews conducted, a number of conflicting versions were obtained such that the CCC is unable to be confident about some of the key facts relevant to the assessment of the allegation. No adverse comment is made in this regard about any of the witnesses interviewed, or Councillor Richards.
Some established key facts include that in 2017 and 2018, Councillor Richards was involved in funding applications and approval processes for a launch event. In each of those years, a particular business was selected to provide catering services. The owner/operator of that business was a person with whom Councillor Richards had a pre-existing relationship. During her CCC interview, Councillor Richards described this person as being an acquaintance and not a personal friend. No conflict of interest was declared in relation to the applications. However, it is important to note that the extent to which Councillor Richards was involved in the selection of the particular business was the subject of conflicting versions provided to the CCC, and the CCC is not in a position to come to any firm conclusion in relation to the issue. Councillor Richards has denied pushing for the particular business to be used, stating that, prior to the 2017 launch event, she provided a list of four businesses to the event organisers, one of which was the business in question.
The CCC is of the view that the application of funds from the LMSIF could have been more transparent to avoid perceptions of corruption, particularly insofar as the manner in which those funds were used in relation to catering by a particular business.
To improve transparency, and to clarify the responsibilities of all individuals involved in the process regarding the application of funds from the LMSIF, the CCC has written to the Chief Executive Officer of the Brisbane City Council (BCC) to recommend a number of procedural improvements for the LMSIF. The recommendations are:
- A review be conducted of the current LMSIF program and the existing assessment forms be modified to increase transparency and accountability and address the following issues:
a) changes should be made to the assessment form to clearly require any real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest relating to a councillor approving and/or assessing an application to be declared (the form should draw the councillor’s attention to the potential for conflicts of interest to arise as a result of any political advantage flowing to the councillor or other elected officials associated with the same political party); if the councillor considers that no conflict exists, they should be required to declare this fact;
b) changes to the assessment form be made to require mandatory assessment comments where the councillor provides a justification for approval/non-approval or part approval. In addition to the current criteria, the justification should outline how the application meets the funding principles;
c) if the councillor is required or chooses to sign a hard copy assessment form, the hard copy assessment form should contain the same information as the corresponding electronic form;
d) consideration be given to requiring that any conflict of interest declaration, and what it refers to, be added to the information published on the council’s website; and
e) consideration be given to a new section being added to the assessment form requiring an alternate approval process for when a councillor declares a conflict of interest.
- Increased independent oversight by non-elected council officers should be introduced in relation to the LMSIF program, allowing proper audits and assessments to ensure that patterns of potential corrupt conduct are able to be identified.
- A review of LMSIF guidelines in relation to the procurement of goods and services. It is recommended that goods and/or services procured via the LMSIF program should be supported with documented quotes and should, where possible, be obtained from providers located within the boundaries of an electorate.
- A review of the current situation that allows councillors to both make application for LMSIF funding and then approve that same application be carried out.
- A review of the role of the BCC Grants Unit with respect to the LMSIF program be carried out. It is recommended that grant officers provide adequate justifications as to why the requested applications meet the funding principles.
- A review of LMSIF guidelines to establish a threshold amount for each application and introducing a requirement for approval to also be obtained from the BCC Grants Unit if the threshold amount is exceeded.
Note: These recommendations would apply to all existing and any future community discretionary funding program.
In October 2019, the CCC published a report following an audit which examined the conduct of councils and councillors in the use of discretionary funds, with a particular focus on the management of risk and probity. The CCC has also provided a copy of this audit to the BCC when it provided the procedural recommendations following this investigation. The CCC encourages all local governments to review this audit, and the recommendations made to the BCC, to determine if their respective programs could be improved. The Summary Audit Report can be found here.
It is the CCC’s longstanding position that it is always the preference for complaints and other correspondence relating to assessments and investigations to remain confidential so matters can proceed without allegations being aired publicly. Publication of a complaint or correspondence may compromise how effective inquiries undertaken by the CCC can be, especially when potential witnesses have advanced warning. The publication of a complaint can also lead to unsubstantiated allegations being aired publicly, and may give the appearance a complaint is motivated for political gain or other reasons.
To remove any doubt, the CCC does not make any criticism of a complaint being made to the CCC in relation to this matter. The CCC does, however, find the fact that it was publicised disappointing.
The CCC is an independent agency combating major crime and reducing corruption for the benefit of the Queensland community.