Corruption probe grills V/Line chief over payments

By Shannon Jenkins

October 27, 2020

(AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

V/Line chief executive officer James Pinder allegedly received $320,000 in payments from a cleaning contractor over several months, and communicated with the cleaning company’s boss through “secretive” disposable phones, the Victorian corruption watchdog has heard.

The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission on Monday held its first public hearing as part of Operation Esperance — a probe into corruption allegations regarding the tendering, procurement and management of contracts within V/Line and Metro.

Counsel assisting the commission Paul Lawrie reportedly told the inquiry that Pinder had received at least $320,000 in payments from Transclean — the cleaning contractor for V/Line and Metro — over the course of several months. This included a $100,000 loan in December 2018, which Lawrie alleged had helped pay for the deposit for Pinder’s current home in Williamstown.

“This was the first of several structured payments between late 2018 and early 2019 totalling $320,000 which went towards the purchase of the property and which ultimately trace back to Transclean,” he said.

Pinder told the hearing that while the $100,000 payment was a “loan agreement” between himself and a Transclean associate, he had discussed the loan with Transclean managing director George Haritos.

The V/Line chief had awarded Transclean a contract worth up to $40 million just months before receiving the loan, in May. While Pinder rejected Lawrie’s suggestion that the loan was a reward for securing the contract, he admitted that he had “made a mistake by asking somebody that I shouldn’t have asked to lend me some money”.

Lawrie alleged the payments to Pinder “were in addition to suspected regular cash payments to both him and [Metro rolling stock manager] Peter Bollas to advance Transclean’s interests in the public transport sector”.

Read more: IBAC’s ‘Operation Esperance’ hearings to probe corruption allegations involving major public transport contracts

Secret phones used for years

Lawrie alleged Pinder, Bollas and Haritos began using “secretive” burner phones to communicate with each other soon after Pinder became head of V/Line in 2016.

“These three men appear to have formed a close group in the course of their professional lives, which began in a common association with Metro Trains some eight years ago,” he said.

“For a period of nearly four years, James Pinder and George Haritos have used a pair of burner mobile phones, subscribed in the names of Transclean associates, to communicate secretly with each other, and with Peter Bollas, thereby attempting to keep the trio’s dealings beyond detection.”

Pinder was suspended from his role in August after IBAC launched the investigation, with Bollas suspended shortly after.

IBAC commissioner Robert Redlich has previously said the hearings would examine whether current senior public officers have improperly influenced the awarding of contracts, “whether the current systems and controls are sufficient to protect the integrity of the tendering and procurement process”, as well as potential systemic issues.

Pinder will appear before the hearings again on Tuesday.

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