A former senior public servant “falsified records” and “defied Cabinet decisions”, Western Australia’s Corruption and Crime Commission has revealed.
An investigation by the CCC found Felicity Heffernan “recklessly failed to comply with proper procedure, resulting in significant unauthorised expenditure of public funds”.
Heffernan was director of the legal and commercial division of the currently-named Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) from 2016-2018.
A damning statement from the CCC released on Friday said Heffernan “ought to have epitomised honesty and integrity … not least because she was in a position of trust and given great autonomy”.
Heffernan falsified documents on two separate occasions, the investigation found.
One incident involved Dr Howard Carr, an expert in plant intellectual property, who was occasionally contracted by the DPIRD. When Carr’s contract expired, Heffernan continued to employ him using an international law firm as an intermediary, evading the requirements of a public sector recruitment freeze in the process.
Heffernan falsified and backdated a letter of engagement in order to pay Carr.
Another incident involved former chief executive officer of the Potato Marketing Board (PMB), Peter Evans.
The state government abolished the PMB in 2016 and allocated $1.2m for the process. Rather than Evans being transferred to the DPIRD, Heffernan and Evans “brought about a situation” where he was paid a redundancy of almost $400,000, the CCC reports.
He was then hired as a consultant to assist DPIRD in legal matters between WA and entities associated with the ‘spud king’ Tony Galati for roughly $100,000. The PMB requested $450,000 for the proceedings, but the state Cabinet refused.
Heffernan created a fake letter of engagement from law firm Kott Gunning — which knew nothing of the document — to enable the extra payment to Evans.
The CCC has recommended an appropriate authority or independent agency consider whether to commence prosecution.
They noted that Heffernan and Evans are no longer employed in the roles they exploited, arguing that “all too often” public officers “resign without consequence”.
“Occasionally, this has led to these officers being employed in other parts of the public sector without the earlier matters being resolved,” said the report.
The CCC suggested a central database of allegations and outcomes be created to avoid misconduct risks and said the Public Sector Commission may consider the issue.
Heffernan told the ABC the CCC’s findings were “manifestly inaccurate” and she would challenge them.
Minister welcomes findings
Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan welcomed the findings against Heffernan and Evans.
“The conduct outlined in the report is completely unacceptable and I welcome the CCC’s efforts in pursuing this matter,” the minister said.
“I first became aware of suspicious circumstances in 2017 and requested DPIRD conduct an internal investigation into the matter.
“I share the CCC’s concern that all too often, public officers resign without consequence during disciplinary processes – which is why we were very encouraging of a CCC investigation into this matter.
“We are seeking the State Solicitor’s Office’s advice on the next steps in potential prosecutions and in recovering public funds.”