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‘Looks like a conspiracy’: Department emails tried to discourage evidence from staffer who shredded documents

“The Premier, her office and department need to be held to account for their bungled efforts to mislead and misdirect the parliament,” Mr Shoebridge said.

“In addition to these communications the Premier’s office had direct … unofficial channels to me, seeking the same result, seeking that we not call Ms Lau, that we not bring her before the inquiry. I, of course, sought to have that recorded in writing.”

The Premier’s office declined to comment after being contacted by the Sydney Morning Herald.

Emails uploaded onto the inquiry’s website late on Thursday show correspondence between the Department and the Public Accountability Committee’s secretariat regarding government witnesses, with one October 16 departmental email saying all records concerning Ms Lau’s role had already been produced to parliament.

“I am therefore advised that Ms Lau is unlikely to be able to assist the Committee’s inquiries further by attending in person,” the departmental staffer, whose name has been removed, wrote a week before Ms Lau gave evidence alongside the Premier’s former chief of staff Sarah Cruickshank.

The staffer said the Office of Local Government and Department of Regional NSW would be better placed to assist the inquiry, despite OLG head Tim Hurst saying the grants were allocated by the Premier, Deputy Premier John Barilaro, and then Minister for Local Government, Gabrielle Upton.

Gladys Berejiklian's senior policy adviser Sarah Lau gave evidence.

Gladys Berejiklian’s senior policy adviser Sarah Lau gave evidence. Credit:NSW Parliament

An October 19 email from a departmental staffer said both Ms Lau and Ms Cruickshank considered their attendance wouldn’t be able to assist the inquiry.

The staffer also asked whether the committee was able to inform them beforehand of the matters they wanted the witnesses to talk about, before acknowledging it was a “novel request”.

On October 21 an email from the Department’s general counsel Kate Boyd confirmed Ms Lau was willing to attend the October 23 hearing.

“There is no need for the Committee to meet to consider an alternative witness,” Ms Boyd wrote.

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Labor’s John Graham labelled the emails “extraordinary”: “This is the key legal adviser to the Department of Premier and Cabinet who says that Ms Lau’s evidence is unlikely to be of any further assistance.”

“Without Ms Lau’s evidence we wouldn’t know what happened to these documents, the fact that they’d been shredded, the electronic records deleted,” he said.

“This whole scandal looks like a conspiracy, [but] we’ll wait until the multiple investigations that have now been launched into this conclude to make that judgment.”

According to a Labor analysis, 95 per cent of the $250 million pool went to councils in Coalition seats in the lead up to the 2019 state election. Emails show the Premier approved almost $142 million, the majority of which went to Coalition seats.

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A NSW Government spokesperson has previously said that the guidelines for the administration of the fund were followed at all times and the grants benefited community projects statewide.

Ms Berejiklian last week distanced her involvement from the scheme, originally created to financially assist councils that had been amalgamated, by saying that she had not signed off on the grants.

Ms Lau told the inquiry that her use of the word “sign off” was just a turn of phrase: “The truth is, she was not approving any payment under the grants program.”

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