Crikey 20/12/07


Australian Wheat Board


20 December 2007 


Excerpt from Crikey :


… 29. AWB – more chaff to be cut

Michael Pascoe writes:


The legal system is a torturously slow and ponderous beast. If it takes three years or so for a murder case to be weighed on the scales, the year-and-a-bit that it has taken ASIC to launch its first AWB actions should not be too surprising.


The unkind might think that when the AFP-ASIC-Victoria Police task force answered ultimately to Phil Ruddock, no haste could be expected. But for everyone with an interest in this saga of what an arrogant corporate culture can lead to, there are years of charges and court cases ahead.


Yesterday’s announcement of civil action against six individuals is merely an overture, but it’s important for two reasons: former AWB CEO Andrew Lindberg might have escaped Tezza Coles’ censure with a teary witness box performance, but ASIC is after him; the timing – getting a couple of shots in ahead of civil statute of limitations come into play.


ASIC isn’t ruling anything in or out, but the criminal charges are still out there, still coming down the silk-brushed pipeline, especially against AWB itself. And when the criminal charges start flying, defendants are much more likely to look for others to blame. The Nuremburg defence will be popular.


With this early small-arms fire, ASIC is showing it will range further than the targets defined by Cole, which will keep many other people nervous and plenty of lawyers in work.


It was perhaps unfortunate timing then that yesterday also saw the announcement that former AWB director and current St George chairman John Thame is stepping down next year. Thame is rather young to be quitting as chairman – he’s only 65 – but perhaps it’s best for St George if he’s not chairman during the next and more ruthless rounds of AWB examinations and cross examinations.


Back on 29 March, Crikey reported:


In evidence already given to the Cole inquiry, it looks like Thame was quick to grasp in December 2004 that there was scandal in the very dodgy deal AWB did to inflate the price of wheat to recoup an $8 million “debt” Iraq allegedly owed to the shady little Tigris outfit, courtesy of BHP – and pick up $500,000 commission for its troubles, as well as higher fees from wheat growers. Incredibly, the AWB board decided it was an operational matter and left it to management to deal with.


The company secretary’s notes () record Thame as saying about Tigris over three board meetings in December 2004 and February 2005: "PR risk is high, don’t rely on legal situation", "Smell", "Might hurt now. Wisdom of hindsight, wished hadn’t done that. Notified D&O insurance?"


The insurance reference is in regards to directors’ liability insurance.


We wondered if a non-executive director perceived his company was on the nose, might have committed illegal acts and could be headed for a PR disaster, was it acceptable for him to just quietly fold his individual tent and slip away without putting his lips near a whistle.


Thame’s reason for resigning from AWB was the extra responsibilities he took on as St George chairman in 2004.


Tigris could yet prove legally more interesting than the headline-grabbing $300 million kickbacks. The odd former BHP body could be exhumed as well.