Officials were “being directed for a political outcome” in the tender process for the Campbell Primary School expansion project by Education Minister Yvette Berry’s office, a key witness told the Integrity Commission on Friday (11 August).
On the second day of the corruption watchdog’s hearings into why the tender was awarded to Lendlease when Manteena was identified as the preferred tenderer at two key stages, the delegate known by the pseudonym John Green said members of the team tasked with evaluating the tenders were aware of “the view from the minister’s office that Manteena shouldn’t get the job”.
This is despite Manteena offering to complete the project for a price almost $900,000 lower than Lendlease’s.
Mr Green claimed Minister Berry’s then-chief of staff Josh Ceramidas had told him in a phone call: “Let’s not make it another project where the government just chases the cheapest bidder” and he “gave his support to finding more money if needed”.
As counsel assisting Callan O’Neill pointed out and Mr Green agreed, this was the view also conveyed by the ACT branch of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining And Energy Union (CFMEU).
In yesterday’s hearings, Mr O’Neill told the commission that evidence was likely to suggest there was a “line of communication” between the CFMEU and Mr Ceramidas.
The commission also heard that the CFMEU held a negative view of Manteena and its industrial relations performance, and was also critical of the ACT Government’s procurement process and tendency to “take the lowest price”.
Mr Green also spoke of a conversation between himself and education director-general Katy Haire, who had said something along the lines of, “I was summoned to the minister’s office to talk about the Campbell tender, they’ve got a view that Manteena is not to get the job”.
Ms Haire told Mr Green: “I’ll be the final decision-maker on this process”. Mr Green said it was “unusual but not unknown” for the decision to be taken out of the hands of the delegate by the director-general.
“It confirmed to me that what she wanted was for me to achieve the desired outcome of the minister’s office, which was to hand down a process where the minister’s objective could be achieved,” Mr Green said.
He said he felt a “degree of relief” not to be the final decision-maker on the Campbell project, because “we’re being directed for a political outcome … and in my view that’s above my acting pay grade”.
The two tenders for the Campbell project were originally assessed by a tender evaluation team that awarded Manteena a higher ranking and a lower risk rating than Lendlease. However, the tender evaluation report was not accepted by the delegate and a second evaluation team was assembled.
The second evaluation team contained Mr Green’s subordinates in the directorate, Dylan Blom and Pal Patel, who he said were both aware of the minister’s office’s position on Manteena.
He also said he was likely to have commented to Mr Blom about the “disparity” in ranking between Manteena and Lendlease. The first tender evaluation team had initially awarded Manteena a score of 79/100 and Lendlease a score of 52/100.
In later questioning, Mr Green acknowledged it may have been inappropriate for him to have shared this information with the team.
“I was sharing with my team the political environment … In hindsight, I deeply regret doing that. I should not have said anything at all in that process,” he said.
Mr Green had been pushing for the tenders to be evaluated through a ‘best and final offer’ (BAFO) process, something he had made known to the tender evaluation team.
Integrity Commissioner Michael Adams asked Mr Green whether he believed that the fact the tender evaluation team was aware of his preferred outcome constituted a conflict of interest, given they were obliged to consider the issues independently.
Asked whether “without an actual direction, you went as far as you could or you felt you could go to ensure that was going to be the result”, Mr Green said he didn’t feel he actively directed that there had to be a BAFO.
“I thought I gave them the space to let them make their viewpoints on it, but I definitely guided,” Mr Green said.