Obeid empire under scrutiny
The former NSW MP is facing some tough questions, write Kate McClymont and Linton Besser.
FOR years before he left New South Wales Parliament in mid-2011, Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid entered "not applicable" in the section of his pecuniary interest declaration asking whether he had received income from a trust.
But the accuracy of those declarations are being queried following sensational revelations in a corruption inquiry this week about the millions of dollars that have flowed through six Obeid family trusts, including millions that came to the Obeid family as proceeds from an allegedly corrupt government tender.
The riches that abound in the Obeid family coffers have also raised questions about whether the Obeids were meeting their tax liabilities.
In November 2011, officers from the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption raided the Obeids' Birkenhead Point headquarters as part of their probe into whether the Obeids made millions of dollars from the allegedly corrupt granting of coal exploration licences by then minister Ian Macdonald in 2008-09.
Among the documents seized was a trust account summary that showed that at the time of the ICAC raid, $18.38 million had flowed through the Obeid Family Trust No. 1 to family members.
Giving evidence at the corruption hearing earlier this week, Mr Obeid's son-in-law, Sam Achie, the financial controller of Obeid Corporation, agreed that the $18 million was given to Mr Obeid, his wife and nine children as loans rather than distributions because no tax is payable on loans.
Mark Leibler, senior partner at Arnold Bloch Leibler, said, "There is nothing strange about trusts lending millions of dollars to beneficiaries."
The Obeids' trusts documents, which their legal team tried unsuccessfully to suppress, revealed Mr Obeid had credit card bills and other expenses paid by the family trust. These payments raise questions about Mr Obeid's pecuniary interests declaration to the NSW Parliament. In 2002, the Parliament's privileges and ethics committee cleared Mr Obeid of any wilful wrongdoing over his 154 errors in his pecuniary interest forms.
A snapshot of the vast and secret business empire Mr Obeid and his five sons have created was revealed at ICAC this week.
Under "income", one family trust lists items as "consultancy income" and "success fee". The existence of such accounting measures offers some credence to rumours about the way the "success fees" were for helping people overcome problems with the state government or Labor-dominated councils.
Then there are the 50-odd "non-current assets" to which the Obeid Family Trust No. 1 has issued loans worth almost $9 million. Some of these loans have been made to Obeid-associated entities including The Stables, a condominium at Perisher, Milland, which owns a vast estate at Port Macquarie which the Obeids are hoping to develop, and El-Telegraph newspaper.
But there are other, more mysterious investments. The family has extended loans to Peter Bakhos' City Civil, a major demolition subcontractor that has done work with some of Australia's biggest builders including St Hilliers and John Holland.
The trust was also involved in Burwood Apartments Pty Ltd, run by the Obeids' accountant, Sid Sassine.
There was also a 2004 loan to Blackwall Point Developments Pty Ltd, which played a mysterious role in the $10 million purchase of a large industrial estate. Despite questions as to whether authorities would rezone the land, in 2006 the company - owned by Eddy Chahine, Wally Wehbe, Daniel Nicolas and Equitexx (a front company for Obeids) -
on-sold the property for $17 million to a related party.
A $2.8 million loan was made to the Obeid's Circular Quay restaurants. Mr Obeid never disclosed the family's interests even while he lobbied for government rent reductions on the harbourside properties. A further $35,000 went to Direct Health Solutions (which received government contracts to manage absenteeism) and $3.4 million to Australian Water Holdings (which has been issued contracts worth hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to roll out infrastructure in Sydney's north-west).