FINANCE Minister Greg Pearce is at the centre of new perceived conflict of interest claims after it emerged his former law firm Freehills provided legal advice to allow the sale of seven government buildings to a firm associated with a fellow former Freehills partner.
Mr Pearce has been criticised for allowing Cromwell Property, chaired by former Freehills partner Geoffrey Levy, to win the $405 million contract to purchase the properties and lease them back to government given Mr Levy chaired the minister’s Property Asset Utilisation Taskforce which had recommended the sale. Mr Levy said he knew Cromwell was bidding only because he was excluded from “every board meeting” involving the bid.
“I didn’t even know Freehills did the legal advice,” he said.
Yesterday the government admitted that the firm which provided the legal advice, at a cost of $921,600, was the one both men had previously worked for. The tender was just under the $1 million requirement for an economic appraisal from Treasury for tenders.
The government said Freehills was one of six bidders for the tender. There is no suggestion it did not win the contract on its merits or that it gave improper advice. Mr Pearce maintained there was no conflict of interest.
He has boasted of his connections to Freehills, telling the upper house in May 2011: “As honourable members know, I was a partner in Freehills for 18 years. I became a partner when I was 28, which in those days was pretty well unheard of.”Mr Pearce is already under fire over a number of “jobs for the boys” accusations.
Mr Pearce’s office said he had no discussions with Freehills concerning the legal contract on the sale of properties and denied any conflict.
Mr Levy said he had nothing to do with the Cromwell bid and, while confirming Mr Pearce and others “pushed me along” to take the job to chair the taskforce, he also insisted there was no conflict.
“I worked with Greg in 1986-’87, a young lawyer in his area,” Mr Levy said. “I have never been to his house. The last time we worked together was in Freehills in ’92-’93.”
Cromwell Property has said Mr Levy’s involvement with the firm made it harder to win the contract because of all the probity hoops it had to go through.
Mr Levy, who is also the deputy chair of Investec, said that company was also involved in the bidding and he had also been excluded from those discussions.