CBP head Dunstan de Souza has told Lawyers Weekly that his firm’s reputation has not been tarnished by current and former partners at the firm being called before ICAC.
CBP managing partner Dunstan de Souza (pictured) was speaking to Lawyers Weekly with regard to allegations made against his predecessor as managing partner, Nick Di Girolamo, and the closeness of the firm’s relationship to the Obeid family.
Last week, senior partner Greg Skehan gave evidence before ICAC on his role as a director of the company Australian Water Holdings (AWH), which had links to the Obeid family.
Di Girolamo left CBP to take on a full-time role with AWH in 2007 as its chief executive.
“The first matter we opened for the Obeids was in late 2008 and the last matter was in October 2012,” said de Souza, who said that in that four year period they did six separate pieces of work for the Obeids. “In that same period we opened almost 15,000 files and only six were for the Obeids.
“They are a very miniscule part of our firm.”
CBP is currently taking legal action to recover around $750,000 owed to the firm by the Obeids.
The Obeids had previously written to CBP via its corporate entity Obeid Corporation Pty Ltd to assure the firm it would pay the bill.
In ICAC hearings this month, it has emerged that Di Girolamo, who was also a prominent fundraiser for the Liberal Party, paid himself around $1 million per year plus bonuses while an office holder with AWH. It has also been alleged that he was involved in funnelling money to a slush fund controlled by the senior Liberal Party figure Chris Hartcher and that he colluded with the Obeids to try and win a government contract.
“Nick had a role at this firm for 18 months [managing partner], and he left the firm seven years ago by mutual consent, if I can put it that way,” said de Souza. “It had nothing to do with the law firm (his role with AWH) and I can’t imagine it will have a reputational impact because they were decisions made well after he left the firm.
“Nick was with us for 18 months in my role (managing partner), his predecessor was in that role for 20 years, and I have been in the role for seven years,” said de Souza, who was distancing the firm from the actions of Di Girolamo and playing down his subsequent influence at the firm since leaving in 2007.
“Perhaps that reflects on the firm more than Nick’s behaviour after he left.”
Breaking bread with powerful friends
At ICAC hearings last week, counsel assisting the Commission, Geoffrey Watson SC, asked Skehan about a private lunch at CBP’s Sydney office in 2007, less than two months after de Souza replaced Di Girolamo.
Skehan, de Souza and Di Girolamo were all present at the lunch, which also included Eddie Obeid Senior and Junior, the former NSW Treasurer Michael Costa, the former Federal Government Minister, Mark Arbib, and senior business executives.
de Souza revealed to Lawyers Weekly that the lunch was a fundraiser for the Labor Party and said there was nothing inappropriate in a law firm hosting fundraisers for political parties.
“Michael Costa was the state treasurer at the time and attendees wanted the opportunity to hear from, and speak to, the state treasurer,” he said. “Every single major law firm and every single major accountancy firm and engineering firm or architecture firm, I could go on and on, create opportunities for their clients to interact in that way,” he said, adding that CBP has also hosted Liberal Party fundraising activities.
Michael Costa was later a chairman of AWH.
He has not been accused of any wrongdoing at ICAC.
‘Did the money come from the tooth fairy?’
Skehan was a director of AWH between March 2009 to January 2013, a role that encompassed corporate governance responsibilities. Counsel assisting the Commission, Geoffrey Watson SC, questioned Skehan about his knowledge of payments to senior AWH executives, including Di Girolamo.
At one point, Watson mocked Skehan's evidence, asking if he thought that a $1.6 million salary paid to a former director of AWH came from ‘the tooth fairy’.
Skehan also told ICAC that it was appropriate that Di Girolamo was paid $1.3 million, almost five times that of the Prime Minister, for work with the company.
Skehan revealed he was initially paid $100,000 when first coming on board as a director of AWH in 2009, and that in 2007 he had invested $199,999 in the associated company Australian Water.
Skehan also told ICAC that CBP had a role in giving advice to the Liberal Party senator Arthur Sinodinos about how “an option arrangement might work” when he joined the board of AWH.
Sinodinos stood down as the assistant treasurer last week prior to his scheduled appearance before ICAC.
It has been alleged that AWH falsely billed Sydney Water for expenses and used that money for executive salaries and political donations.
Skehan has not been accused of any improper conduct and de Souza reiterated his support for him and the support of the whole firm’s partnership.
In 2012 Skehan and his fellow CBP senior partner Chris Rumore appeared before ICAC.
Rumore, who has acted for the Obeid family, was not accused of any improper conduct.