Politics

No evidence of criminal conduct in $30m purchase of land near western Sydney airport, AFP finds | Sydney

The Australian federal police have found no evidence of criminality in the federal government’s controversial purchase of land near the western Sydney airport for 10 times its market value.

The purchase of Leppington Triangle prompted a damning audit last year, which revealed the infrastructure department had paid $29.8m for the 12-hectare plot in mid-2018. A valuation a year later showed it was worth just $3m.

The AFP announced on Wednesday it had carefully investigated whether bribery, conspiracy to defraud or abuse of public office were involved in the controversial purchase.

But it said it could not find sufficient evidence of criminality by commonwealth officials or others involved in the purchase.

The AFP investigation found the purchase was “in line with the requirements of the Lands Acquisition Act … and was authorised by appropriate Commonwealth officials and authorities”.

“The financial analysis undertaken as part of the investigation found no evidence of Commonwealth officials obtaining a personal benefit from the acquisition, or other persons receiving or paying corrupt payments,” the AFP said in a statement.

Police said they conducted a “full and thorough investigation into the serious allegations of criminal conduct involving the use of public funds”.

“The investigation involved the analysis of extensive documentary and digital holdings, the interview of numerous relevant people – including Department of Infrastructure staff who were involved in the acquisition process – and a detailed financial analysis of payments made in relation to the purchase,” the AFP said.

The AFP found nothing to warrant criminal charges and said the matter was now finalised.

The land was owned by the Leppington Pastoral Company, whose owners donated $58,800 to the Liberal party in 2018-19.

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An audit of the purchase by the Australian National Audit Office was scathing of ethical failings and the government hiding self-declared conflicts of interest within the western Sydney unit responsible for the deal.

The auditor general then referred the matter to the AFP for criminal investigation, saying it had “found information that we cannot explain and is suggestive that the Commonwealth may have been defrauded”.

Earlier this year, a parliamentary inquiry heard the purchase was the result of “gross incompetence or corruption”.

The AFP last week confirmed it was investigating possible “criminal offences” relating to the sale.

Geoffrey Watson SC, the director of the Centre for Public Integrity, said the price paid for the land was “unjustifiable”.

“To make the purchase at 10 times its value must show the decision was one of two things. It had to be … either gross incompetence or corruption – it can’t be anything else.”

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