“I understand that [a PNG minister] and [a senior public servant] were unhappy that payments did not come to them either directly or through subcontractors … I also discussed these approaches and previous direct approaches from [a senior PNG official] with you in early November 2017 from my recollection,” Mr Stewart’s email said.
The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald can also reveal that Paladin made a “cultural” payment of up to $4000 at the request of one of PNG’s most senior government officials in late 2017. It is the first time an Australian government offshore detention contractor has admitted paying money at the request of a top PNG official.
Although the amount of money was small and was to help repatriate a body for a funeral, it set a precedent and led to increasing pressure on Paladin from various PNG politicians and officials for improper payments, according to leaked Paladin emails.
Details of the payment are outlined in a number of emails between Mr Stewart, who resigned from Paladin’s board in August last year, and the company’s chief executive David Saul.
The revelations come as the Morrison government and Home Affairs brace for the tabling of what is expected to be a scathing report about the handling of contracts that underpin Australia’s controversial offshore detention regime.
Throughout 2019, Mr Pezzullo was adamant: no records could be found to suggest anyone in his department was aware of any improper approaches to Paladin from PNG politicians or officials.
On April 4, he initally told the estimates committee his department had no information about corruption concerns in PNG. Later that day, Mr Pezzullo said he would ask for “the net be cast a little bit more widely” to uncover any suggestion of “inducement, extortion, bribery, corruption or misconduct”.
Months later on October 21, despite Mr Stewart’s April email to Mr Nockels, Mr Pezzullo said: “We denied it in April and I’ve not seen anything since …”. Asked if Mr Nockels had received any information about demands from PNG officials, Pezzullo said: “Not as at the last time we checked.”
And last Monday, Mr Pezzullo was back before the same Senate committee and facing more questions about Paladin and PNG. There it was revealed that two days after Mr Pezzullo’s October 21 denial, the head of Operation Sovereign Borders, Major General Craig Furini, was told about a report from Paladin received in July by the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby of an improper request for a payment made by a top PNG government official.
Back on April 4, Mr Stewart did more than just email Mr Nockels. He spoke to him several times before and during Mr Pezzullo’s Senate estimates appearance. He also provided Mr Nockels with other emails he had sent to various Home Affairs officials in which he raised concerns about pressure from PNG officials.
In an email to Paladin CEO, Mr Saul, Mr Stewart explained his reason for contacting Mr Nockels: “Following Secretary Pezzullo’s comments, I immediately rang David Nockels and advised him that it was not true we hadn’t been approached and I reminded him of our earlier conversation,” Mr Stewart wrote.
When Labor senators on Monday sought to question Mr Nockels, they were told he had been sent overseas for work and would not be back in time.
Labor’s Home Affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally on Friday called on Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to order an exhaustive search of all his department’s emails to determine exactly what his officials were told by Paladin about potential corruption and when.
‘We will not be thanked …’
In late 2017, Paladin was scrambling to get a workforce together in order to fulfil the Manus Island garrison support contract it had been awarded earlier in the year. The company needed visas for its workers from PNG’s Immigration department. Mr Stewart attended meetings with various PNG Immigration officials to press Paladin’s case.
Soon after, he was contacted on his mobile phone by one of the most senior figures in PNG’s government. According to a detailed email Mr Stewart sent to Mr Saul on October 29 last year, the powerful official said he was in a position to “help Paladin out in return for a payment”.
“He asks for a cultural payment to help a body repatriation from Lae. We make this payment into a BSP (Bank South Pacific) bank account in good faith — it is around PGK 5-10k ($2200 to $4400 Australian dollars),” Mr Stewart wrote.
“I discuss making the payment with [fellow Paladin director] Craig Thrupp and we agree we can do it and we agree we can do it if it is a) not a bribe, b) not a facilitation payment and that there is no more payments required and no expectation of support from this payment.”
But that payment created a problem for Paladin and Mr Stewart: the same official continued to use his position within PNG’s government to make improper demands. Mr Stewart made an audio recording of the man he believes is the same senior PNG official asking him in June last year for another $15,000 payment.
The man talking to Mr Stewart was armed with inside knowledge about a yet-to-be-announced agreement between the Australian and PNG governments for Paladin’s contract to be extended. Mr Stewart has provided a copy of this recording to Paladin and Paladin reported the matter to PNG police, its CEO has said.
The PNG official in question has denied requesting bribes. Paladin reported the matter to PNG police and believes Mr Stewart was approached by fraudsters pretending to be senior officials. The Age and Herald have decided not to name the official Mr Stewart believes approached him for legal reasons.
On October 29, ten weeks after he resigned as a director of Paladin in August last year, Mr Stewart sent Mr Saul an email outlining various attempts by PNG officials to extract payment from Paladin between 2017 and 2019. It also mentioned his efforts to escalate matters within the company and Home Affairs.
“Again, I strongly recommend a full report and disclosure of any corruption that you are aware of. We will not be thanked if any of this comes out, he warned.
Paladin declined to answer questions from The Age and Herald, pointing out it is no longer a Home Affairs contractor.
Richard Baker is a multi-award winning investigative reporter for The Age.