Australian state premier quits over wine 'memory fail'
SYDNEY - Agence France-Presse
Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia celebrates on the podium after coming second in the Formula One Australian Grand Prix as Victoria state Premier Denis Napthine (L) looks on at the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne on March 16, 2014. AFP PHOTOBarry O'Farrell, who leads Australia's populous New South Wales state, told the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) on Tuesday that he was never given the 1959 bottle of Penfolds Grange Hermitage.
But when advised that a thank you note he had signed would be presented at the inquiry on Wednesday, O'Farrell quit.
"I've accepted that I have had a massive memory fail," he told reporters in Sydney. "I still can't explain either the arrival of a gift that I have no recollection of, or its absence, which I certainly still can't explain." The ICAC has heard that Nick Di Girolamo, then chief executive of a water company accused of expenses fraud, sent the rare wine to O'Farrell shortly after he became premier in 2011.
Di Girolamo said the gift -- a 1959 vintage to mark the year of O'Farrell's birth -- had been couriered to the Liberal Party premier's Sydney home to offer "sincere congratulations" on his election victory.
The inquiry has been investigating how Di Girolamo's company, Australia Water Holdings (AWH), was allegedly able to bill a state-owned firm for luxury travel, million-dollar salaries and major political donations.
It has been alleged that the company stood to make up to Aus$60 million if its proposal for a public-private partnership with the government was approved. The deal never went ahead.
O'Farrell said he believed the evidence he gave the inquiry -- in which he strenuously denied ever receiving the lavish gift -- had been truthful, and in no way did he seek to mislead the commission.
He said he would formally resign at a meeting of the New South Wales parliamentary Liberal Party next week, enabling the election of a new state premier.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who leads a Liberal/National Party coalition government, said O'Farrell had "inadvertently" misled the corruption watchdog and he maintained enormous respect for the departing premier.
"We are seeing an act of integrity, an act of honour, the like of which we have rarely seen in Australian politics," Abbott said.
O'Farrell is not the first politician facing difficulties at the corruption inquiry, with Australia's assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos standing aside last month.
The inquiry has made no allegations against Sinodinos and he denies any wrongdoing.
But it has heard that Sinodinos, a respected chief-of-staff to former prime minister John Howard, was paid Aus$200,000 a year plus bonuses at AWH for just 100 hours of work.