Dirty money, dirty trains: IBAC probe shows V/Line still off track
10 Nov 2020

The ink was hardly dry on a written pledge to stamp out “unfettered cronyism” at regional rail operator V/Line when then-chief executive James Pinder secretly offered a job with a salary exceeding $200,000 to a mate.

“For you brother, everything is possible,” Pinder wrote to Metro’s operational fleet manager Peter Bollas in a text exchange spanning 2017 and 2018.

The cavalier remark was at odds with Pinder’s public attempts to champion integrity at V/Line in the wake of a 2017 Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) probe — codenamed Operation Lansdowne — exposing a jobs-for-mates culture that saw managers grant friends lucrative contracts on salaries higher than the Prime Minister’s.

Pinder and Bollas were close friends, having worked together at Metro between 2012 and 2016, when Bollas was Pinder’s direct report. Bollas attended Pinder’s wedding.

Poached from Britain and on close to a $500,000 annual salary, Pinder promised a squeaky-clean culture at V/Line, whereby new recruits would be hired on merit, their resumes scrutinised and all conflicts of interest declared.

“V/Line’s commitment to integrity is ongoing and genuine,” he wrote in his final report to IBAC on December 18, 2018.

But IBAC investigators were detecting unusual transactions in the new chief executive’s bank account that month, including a $320,000 sum transferred to Pinder from various sources and spent on his $2.5 million Williamstown home. More than $100,000 for his deposit was transferred from a suspicious account the day before Pinder wrote his final report to IBAC.

Investigators moved to tap Pinder’s phones, photographed him in secret and raided his home twice in a probe that has uncovered what could be considered the most significant corruption scandal in Victorian transport history.

Three IBAC probes into Victorian public transport — Operation Fitzroy in 2014, Lansdowne in 2017 and Operation Esperance in 2020 — collectively allege that corruption has occurred within the transport bureaucracy in every year since 2006, pointing to a deep-seated cultural problem within the sector.

But never before has such a senior transport bureaucrat in Victoria been sprung for alleged corruption this brazen: accepting cash bribes bundled up in envelopes by a cleaning contractor, handed over in car parks and cafes across Melbourne.

IBAC’s Esperance hearings live-streamed over the past fortnight showed how, over the past four years, Pinder and Bollas used burner phones to communicate with Transclean’s boss George Haritos, who stands accused of paying off the public officials in exchange for securing multimillion-dollar taxpayer-funded cleaning contracts.

While Bollas admits the payments were kickbacks from Transclean, Pinder and Haritos claim they were gambling winnings from a legal syndicate. Pinder and Bollas have been sacked.

“When you wrote to IBAC saying that you’re addressing any integrity issues and it’s uppermost in your consideration and that of V/Line, that was just window dressing, wasn’t it?” Commissioner Robert Redlich, QC, asked Pinder on the stand after days of gruelling questioning last week.

Pinder replied: “I’ve in the last two-and-a-bit days very publicly conveyed that I’ve acted inappropriately.”

Tracking the money

On December 17, 2018, $120,000 lobbed into Pinder’s account for a deposit on a new home from a woman he claims he never met.

It was part of $320,000 in payments Pinder told IBAC were a loan from a friend who runs cleaning contracts at Transclean, which was then contracted with Metro and Yarra Trams but not V/Line. Pinder told IBAC he didn’t know the money was sourced from Transclean and its associated companies.

“I was in a bit of a fix,” he told the hearings.

Faced with a lack of finance for his home due to tightening lending laws in Australia, Pinder claimed he spearheaded an “elaborate ruse” to seek funds from “unusual sources”, with Haritos telling IBAC he was one of the people Pinder approached for help.

Pinder and Haritos had known each other for a decade, having socialised and gambled together while Pinder was Metro’s rolling stock manager, overseeing Metro’s contract with cleaning contractor Transclean.

When Pinder took the top job at V/Line in late 2016 they were still close, communicating on a burner phone.

In early 2018, Pinder gave his mate an extraordinary boost, granting Transclean V/Line’s cleaning contract —worth up to $40 million — and widening the contract to give the company an extra $5 million in work. Pinder sidelined V/Line’s board by putting the contract under his direct control, giving him the power to extend it by four years, which added $23 million to its value.

All of this was signed off by V/Line’s board after reviewing a four-sentence summary of Transclean’s operations in the space of just 10 minutes.

Seven months later, Pinder got the cash he was after for his home. More than $300,000 was transferred to his account by two intermediaries: Transclean’s head of cleaning contracts, Marie Tsakopoulos, and her sister Andrea Bennett.

But the funds — which can be traced back to Transclean — didn’t stop there.

Covert photos capture Haritos withdrawing between $8000 and $12,000 before meeting Pinder at cafes, car parks and even V/Line’s offices on several occasions this year. Pinder admitted he received cash from Haritos on at least one occasion — the day he was caught by IBAC with $10,000 stuffed in an envelope hidden behind his door.

Pinder repeatedly told IBAC that this money was the proceeds of a gambling syndicate Pinder, Haritos and Bollas were part of.

But this evidence was thrown into doubt when Bollas took the stand and dropped a bombshell.

“I was never in a gambling syndicate,” he said last week in tearful testimony.

Bollas told the inquiry that he and Pinder were accepting monthly payments of between $8000 and $10,000 from Transclean, with Bollas pocketing about $150,000 in exchange for promoting Transclean’s interests at Metro.

The two men had a long-term plan to take over cleaning contracts within Melbourne’s railways and squeeze more taxpayer money for cleaning, boosting their profits, IBAC heard.

By Timna Jacks, The Age, 8 November 2020

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