4 July 2022

Men accused of conspiring to defraud Department of Finance 'thought they were doing nothing wrong'

| Albert McKnight
Two mean leaving court

Abdul “Alex” Aziz El-Debel (left) and Raminder Singh Kahlon leaving court last week. Photos: Albert McKnight.

A barrister for one of the men alleged to have conspired to defraud the Department of Finance has argued their actions were legitimate and “they thought they were doing nothing wrong”.

The ACT Supreme Court trial against 49-year-old Abdul “Alex” Aziz El-Debel and 38-year-old Raminder Singh Kahlon is coming to a close. Both have pleaded not guilty to a charge of conspiring with each other and a third man to dishonestly obtain a gain from the Commonwealth.

The three are alleged to have influenced the recruitment of potential contractors for the Department of Finance, corrupting the process.

Closing submissions by Crown Prosecutor David Staehli SC ran for about two days before Mr Kahlon’s barrister Matthew Kalyk began his final submissions on Thursday (30 June).

Mr Kalyk said if a candidate put forward by his client was selected by the department it was because the department had chosen that candidate as the most suitable for the role.

If this happened, a contract would be instigated and Mr Kahlon was entitled to funds from that contract.

He argued the Crown had not shown any contractor from the third man’s company was appointed on a basis other than merit.

READ ALSO Department of Finance contractor process allegedly corrupted by two accused, trial told

After reading out some of the men’s conversations recorded over telephone intercepts, he said the tone of these calls showed they were trying to get good candidates into positions that needed them rather than trying to get something out of the department.

He said that early calls in 2019 showed a genuine concern about resources and perception.

“It’s clear that they thought they were doing nothing wrong,” he said.

He said after working on the Parliamentary Expenses Management System (PEMS) in 2019, public servant Mr El-Debel and the third man did not want the same issues that occurred in that project to happen again.

During the Government Enterprise Resource Planning (GovERP) project in 2020, the third man said, “I can’t have people just sitting around and wasting budget costs”.

Mr Kalyk said this showed the man didn’t want too many resources because that would waste government money.

Mr El-Debel told the man, “I can’t have a situation where you get burnt again”.

READ ALSO Context key in trial of men accused of conspiring to defraud Department of Finance, barrister says

Mr Kalyk said this showed Mr El-Debel knew how difficult PEMS had been and he wanted to support the third man.

The third man had also said, “it needs to be a winning team, Alex”.

Mr Kalyk said if there had been a conspiracy, then the win would be the money. However, the pair were talking about winning by delivering a project.

He said “not a single dollar” could be proved to have been paid to Mr El-Debel and asked if it was a conspiracy, then why weren’t they sharing in the proceeds?

He said the Crown alleged the third man had suggested some messages should be deleted, but there was no evidence Mr Kahlon actually had deleted evidence.

“Whatever it says about” the third man, it “says nothing about what” Mr Kahlon thought he was doing, he said.

His client had voluntarily spoken to authorities twice, both during a search warrant and after his arrest, and had “never been in trouble with the police”.

READ ALSO Public servant, contractor accused of conspiring to defraud Department of Finance

Mr Kalyk also said the Crown alleged ‘Bhai’, a Hindi word for ‘brother’, was one person in the intercepted calls, being Mr El-Debel.

However, he said there were numerous instances that showed the ‘Bhais’ in the calls were not just one person.

On Monday (4 July), Mr El-Debel’s barrister Catherine Newman talked to the now-11 jurors about how it was clear contracts were going to numerous different suppliers.

She said while there were a lot of calls between the third man and Mr Kahlon about transferring money overseas, there was nothing illegal about doing that.

Her client had nothing to do with any of these transfers and jurors could infer that if there were suspicious transfers connected to him, then they would have been in the evidence, she said.

The trial has been held before Justice Michael Elkaim. Jurors have retired and will begin their deliberations.

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