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‘Never say never’: Ombudsman weighs in on Chapman probe

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UPDATED | The state’s ombudsman says he has powers to investigate issues raised by an inquiry into Attorney-General Vickie Chapman’s rejection of a timber port on Kangaroo Island – but is unlikely to do so because the matter has already been heard by a parliamentary committee.

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However, Wayne Lines said he would be obligated to conduct his own investigation if parliament formally asked him to do so.

It comes as the deputy premier today declined an invitation to reappear before the committee investigating whether she had a conflict of interest, misled parliament or breached the ministerial code of conduct relating to her rejection of Kangaroo Island Plantation Timbers’ $40 million port proposal earlier this year – despite Chapman initially requesting to make a further statement to the inquiry.

Chapman, who hails from Kangaroo Island and owns property there, gave evidence last week in which she conceded land she had inherited from her father Ted’s estate lay within “one to two kilometres” of proposed haulage routes under the port planning application – but insisted “that was of no detriment to me”.

That’s despite previously telling parliament she did not own land “near or impacted by” the proposed development.

It’s understood Chapman, who assessed the proposal in her role as Planning Minister, wrote to the committee last week asking to return to make a further statement.

Correspondence sent by the committee to her office reads: “Thank you again for your offer to appear before the Select Committee” on either last Friday or today.

“The Committee has considered your offer and resolved to invite you to appear on Friday 12 November, preferably at our schedule hearing time of 10.00am but failing that, at a time of your convenience on that day.

“If this date is not suitable, the Committee invites you to appear on the following Monday 15 November…

“The Committee would prefer to hear any additional evidence you may wish to provide after it has heard from other witnesses, or to be provided with that evidence in writing.”

The letter, signed by committee chair Andrea Michaels, said the panel had agreed to delay closing statements from its counsel assisting, Dr Rachael Gray QC, until next  Monday “to facilitate your appearance on Friday”.

However, Chapman’s office has told InDaily the A-G will not attend the committee again to give further evidence.

A spokesperson said Chapman’s own counsel, Frances Nelson QC, applied to deliver a statement in person last week but was declined, and instead delivered it in writing.

The statement called on Labor committee member Tom Koutsantonis to recuse himself from the proceedings because of an alleged “reasonable apprehension of bias”, arising from his public statement’s criticising Chapman’s evidence.

Michaels told InDaily the committee’s counsel has advised there are no grounds for Koutsantonis to stand aside.

The claim of apprehended bias against a parliamentary committee member is the same as that made in September by former ICAC Bruce Lander, who argued crossbench MLC Frank Pangallo should not chair a committee examining Damage, Harm or Adverse Outcomes Resulting from ICAC Investigations because he had “actively campaigned” for its establishment and had publicly criticised the ICAC for its handling of past investigations.

Lander’s former office has had its powers substantially cut by recent parliamentary reforms, with much of the capacity to investigate non-corruption matters being vested instead with state Ombudsman Wayne Lines.

Lines told InDaily that much of the material covered by the inquiry into Chapman’s conduct “does fall under my purview” – particularly the suggestion of a potential breach of the code of ministerial conduct.

He said “an allegation of a serious and intentional breach of the ministerial code would be one that I could look at” under changes to the Act.

However, he added, “if the allegation was put to me to look into it in the current context, I probably wouldn’t – because there’s already a parliamentary inquiry happening”.

“My policy is not to investigate matters that are adequately inquired into by another body,” Lines said.

“I’d never say never [but] I’d probably say that that’s the way they opted to go [so] they can live with the results of it.”

The committee could also opt to refer matters to the Ombudsman directly for further inquiry.

In that instance, he said, “if it was formally referred to me by the Committee or either of Houses and the matter was within my jurisdiction… I would be obliged to investigate and report back”.

Hearings will resume tomorrow with more former KIPT executives due to give evidence, while former Planning Commission chair Michael Lennon is scheduled to appear later this week.

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