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V/Line's currently suspended CEO is questioned during an anti-corruption hearing investigating whether tendering processes between the regional rail operator and Transclean have been "corrupted or compromised".
V/Line's suspended chief executive James Pinder is the first witness to give evidence at the Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC) hearing investigating whether procurement and tendering processes between the regional rail operator and Transclean have been "corrupted or compromised".
"The investigation has uncovered suspected collusion by public officers," the counsel assisting the commission, Paul Lawrie, said in his opening statements, including "close, undisclosed relationships with contractors through the receipt of financial benefits".
"Understandably, there's considerable public interest in exposing such conduct."
The inquiry is centred around Transclean's commercial relationship with V/Line, Metro and "possibly other public transport bodies", and will call the company's co-owner, George Haritos, and suspended Metro Trains fleet manager Peter Bollas.
The commission heard the three men "appear to have formed a close group in their professional lives" and all three used a covert communication system to conduct business dealings for mutual benefit.
"For a period of nearly four years, James Pinder and George Haritos have used a pair of burner mobile phones, subscribed in the names of Transclean associates, to communicate secretly with each other, and with Peter Bollas, thereby attempting to keep the trio's dealings beyond detection," Mr Lawrie told the inquiry.
The commission heard that Mr Pinder and Mr Bollas received cash payments "suspected to be linked to various opportunistic dealings by both James Pinder and Peter Bollas, using their positions to financially benefit Transclean and themselves".
The inquiry is centred around Transclean's commercial relationship with V/Line.(ABC News: Nicole Mills)Questions over $100k bank transferThe counsel assisting the commission raised questions around Mr Pinder's receipt of a $100,000 electronic bank transfer payment towards a deposit at his Williamstown property in December 2018.
"This was the first of several structured payments between late 2018 and early 2019 totalling $320,000 which went towards the purchase of the property and which ultimately trace back to Transclean," Mr Lawrie said in his opening.
When Mr Pinder was asked where the funding came from, he said he was not clear of its origin.
"I don't know specifically, I have to check," he told the commission.
Later, Mr Pinder acknowledged the funding was part of a "loan agreement" between himself and an associate at Transclean; the same associate was responsible for the management of the company's contract with V/Line.
Mr Pinder told the commission he intended to pay the associate back and that he was not aware what salary she was on.
He also said he discussed the "loan" with Mr Haritos.
The commissioner informed Mr Pinder that the source of the funds was in fact Transclean and other corporate entities associated with it.
Mr Pinder was asked whether he knew that Mr Haritos was providing the money to him through the associate.
"No," Mr Pinder said.
"This was your payment, for championing and securing Transclean's being awarded the contract in 2018," Mr Lawrie said.
"That's not true, Mr Lawrie," Mr Pinder said.
"I made a mistake by asking somebody that I shouldn't have asked to lend me some money."
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'I'm a people-centric person'The deposits were made in the months after Mr Pinder and the V/Line board awarded contracts to Transclean, totalling more than $40 million, in May 2018.
Mr Pinder, who has been V/Line's chief executive since 2016, told the inquiry he was not involved in the engagement of the contract nor drawing up the terms.
"I was a figurehead. The decision to spend the money wasn't mine," he said.
Mr Pinder was asked why he then had direct dealings with Mr Haritos given his lack of direct involvement in the contract.
"That's a really good question," Mr Pinder said.
"I have many, many relationships, with many, many people in this industry. I am a people-centric person.
"I would regularly correspond with George Haritos, but not exclusively with Mr Haritos."
Contract extension also scrutinisedThe suspended executive was also questioned over the appropriateness of a decision of the V/Line board to delegate authority to him in May 2018 to extend Transclean's contract by up to four years with an expenditure of more than $20 million.
The chief executive normally has the authority to expend up to $5 million.
But Mr Pinder argued there was nothing unusual about the board's decision, which Mr Lawrie said gave him "direct control to affect Transclean's future interests" around the contract.
"I don't agree with the way you are characterising it," Mr Pinder said.
Neither Metro nor V/Line said it could comment during the IBAC proceedings.
The hearing continues.
This article first appeared on www.abc.net.au
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