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Cole inquiry hears that AWB planned to warn Prime Minister's office about the UN investigation into wheat trade with Iraq.

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Monday 6 March 2006

Cole inquiry hears that AWB planned to warn Prime Minister's office about the UN investigation into wheat trade with Iraq


MARK COLVIN: Was the Prime Mi nister briefed in the middle of last year that a UN investigation was likely to find that the wheat exporter AWB had breached sanctions? 


The Iraq bribes inquiry today heard that AWB senior executives planned to deliver the warning to Mr Howard's office in person. 


An itinerary presented to the Iraq bribes inquiry shows that the company chiefs had also arranged to brief the then deputy prime minister John Anderson. 


Five months later he sold shares in AWB. 


But as we'll hear shortly, Mr Anderson is saying tonight that that briefing never took place, as far as he can remember. 


Brendan Trembath reports. 


BRENDAN TREMBATH: For two days in the middle of last year AWB executives wore out the carpets in Canberra. 


They wanted to warn senior Government officials about the likely findings at the United Nations investigation into the wheat exporter's trade with Iraq. 


AWB Chairman Brendan Stewart, in a sworn statement, has described the meetings this way. 


BRENDAN STEWART (read by actor): The meetings were primarily to inform the Australian Government about what was happening in the Iraq market at that time and the proposed new grains facility in Iraq. 


We also informed the Australian Government that there was a prospect that the Volcker inquiry might find a breach of the UN sanctions because of the payments made to Alia for trucking. 


BRENDAN TREMBATH: At the top of the AWB itinerary was a meeting with Paul O'Sullivan in the Prime Minister's office. 


Mr O'Sullivan now heads the spy agency ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation). 


The AWB executives were also due to meet several ministers, including the deputy prime minister John Anderson. 


The meeting was scheduled for 40 minutes on the afternoon of June the 1st. 


At the time, Mr Anderson owned shares in AWB. But he sold them about five months later. 


It was weeks before United Nations investigator Paul Volcker concluded that AWB had paid almost $300 million in kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime. 


Mr Anderson has denied selling his shares based on inside information. 


And in India this afternoon, the Prime Minister has stood by the integrity of John Anderson. 


JOHN HOWARD: Look, I don't think for a moment Mr Anderson has behaved improperly. 


The Labor Party apparently doesn't think so either because they didn't pursue the matter last week, remember? 


They sort of… they, they, they… how shall I put it? They… they road tested it over the weekend with a journo. And then when it sort of didn't grip they decided to ride in another car. 


REPORTER: This is meetings evidence from the Cole inquiry. It's a different issue. 


JOHN HOWARD: Look, I haven't heard... Look, fair go, I mean, I haven't heard all this (inaudible) there. But all I can tell you is that from the beginning of last year obviously there was a stream of concern about AWB, and we've always said that, that we really got concerned about it - I did - from the beginning of last year. 


BRENDAN TREMBATH: The Iraq bribes inquiry has heard that AWB assumed the United Nations would make an adverse finding, based on the sort of questions being asked by UN investigators. 


The executives also had legal advice from a former High Court judge. 


Their assumptions proved correct when AWB executives received a draft UN report in September last year. 


The AWB Chairman Brendan Stewart recalls it being a disturbing document. 


BRENDAN STEWART (read by actor): The thing that I found most alarming was the finding that Alia was a front company for the government of Iraq and that it did not provide transportation services for AWB. 


This was the first time that anyone had stated to me that Alia was a front company for the Iraqi government. 


I had been repeatedly assured that Alia was genuine company. 


BRENDAN TREMBATH: The AWB executives Brendan Stewart and Andrew Lindberg even went to New York to make a personal appeal to the UN's Paul Volcker. 


BRENDAN STEWART (read by actor): At one stage, Mr Lindberg asked Mr Volcker directly if he had any evidence suggesting anyone in the company had been involved in any wrongdoings, and if so, the company needed to know so that it could be dealt with. 


Mr Volcker said no, and that there was only circumstantial evidence against the company and no evidence of any wrongdoing by any individual. 


BRENDAN TREMBATH: The Cole inquiry has been extended and is now due to hear evidence until the end of the month. 


MARK COLVIN: Brendan Trembath.