CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses an alleged sexual assault.
The chief of staff (COS) for Minister Linda Reynolds has claimed the man accused of raping Brittany Higgins told her he’d gone back to Parliament House late at night to drink whiskey.
The trial of Bruce Lehrmamn, who is accused of raping Ms Higgins in the building on 23 March 2019, continued in the ACT Supreme Court on Tuesday (11 October) with several witnesses who had worked in government at the time.
Fiona Brown, COS for Ms Reynolds, said she didn’t pick up on “any unusual behaviours” in the office where Ms Higgins and Mr Lehrmann worked on 25 March before meeting the latter on the morning of 26 March to discuss his decision to leave his job.
Afterwards, she said she was told Mr Lehrmann and Ms Higgins had apparently entered the office after hours while drunk, claiming they were there for urgent business, before Ms Higgins was found in the office asleep and undressed.
This triggered a second meeting with Mr Lehrmann in which she asked him to explain himself.
“He didn’t agree he was inebriated,” Ms Brown said.
“He said that he went back to the office to drink some whiskey, and I questioned that. I said, ‘that’s a bit unusual to me’. He said, ‘people do that all the time’.”
Ms Brown said he told her he drank two glasses of whiskey. She said while whiskey was not something that was retained in the office, that wasn’t to say others hadn’t brought it in.
She then asked Ms Higgins into a meeting and said she came in, sat down and it was “all very happy”. After she told Ms Higgins she had something serious to discuss, she “shifted”.
Ms Brown claimed Ms Higgins told her she’d been out, had a lot to drink and woke up semi-naked in the office.
Ms Brown asked if “something happened” and claimed Ms Higgins shook her head and said: “I’m responsible for what I drink and my actions”.
She said it was two days later, on 28 March, when Ms Higgins told her: “I remember him on top of me”.
Ms Brown also said she was aware of an incident where Mr Lehrmann had mishandled protected documents, which a departmental liaison officer (DLO) told her they had “grave concerns” over.
“It was left where anyone could read it. It was supposed to be put in a double envelope and sealed and it wasn’t,” she said, adding she was told the nature of the mishandling would have been “a sackable offence”.
On 5 April 2019, Ms Reynolds wrote to Mr Lehrmann and told him he would be fired for serious misconduct.
Ms Brown said one of his breaches of the code of conduct was that he originally claimed he went to Parliament House that night for work, but this was untrue.
Christopher Payne, who worked as a DLO in March 2019, said sometime after the alleged rape Ms Higgins came into his room, visibly upset.
He said she told him she had gone to Ms Reynolds’ office over the weekend where she “blacked out”, then woke up to find Mr Lehrmann “on top of her”.
“She was quite upset and she was crying,” he said.
“I said, ‘Did he rape you?’
“She said, ‘I could not have consented, it would have been like f-king a log’.”
Mr Payne said he offered to take her to see a doctor and the police, but she declined.
He was unsure of when this conversation happened, but said Ms Brown had already told him about how Ms Higgins had been found in the office in a state of undress.
Nicole Hamer worked as a media then ministerial adviser with Ms Reynolds and said she had a meeting with Ms Higgins and Mr Lehrmann at the Kingston Hotel in early March 2019.
She said Mr Lehrmann and another person had asked her to reach out to Ms Higgins.
“He commented on her being good looking,” she said of what Ms Lehrmann had told her.
Ms Hamer also said Mr Lehrmann had alcohol at his desk when Ms Reynolds was the Assistant Home Affairs minister.
“He had quite a big range of alcohol, there was spirits, there was whiskey, there was wine,” she said.
On Monday (10 October), jurors had heard from Lauren Gain, a communications adviser with the Department of Defence in March 2019.
She remembered both she and Ms Higgins, who she had a “professional” relationship with, were quite drunk when they were at the Civic nightclub 88mph early in the morning of 23 March 2019 with Mr Lehrmann and Minister Peter Dutton’s media adviser Austin Wenke.
She also thought Ms Higgins had been taking selfie photos of their group when they were at the nightclub.
Ms Gain said the first she knew about the allegations was when Ms Higgins messaged her on 10 January 2021, several days before the media reports on her were published.
Then on Thursday (13 October), Robert Bower, who worked for Senator Michaelia Cash, said when he and Ms Higgins were at a Coalition Christmas party in late 2019 she told him Mr Lehrmann had allegedly assaulted her when they worked for Ms Reynolds.
“She was anxious, she was worried there was a story that might come out about it,” he said.
The trial, in which 27-year-old Mr Lehrmann has pleaded not guilty to a charge of sexual intercourse without consent, continues before Chief Justice Lucy McCallum.