The Australian's Andrew Burrell filed this Exclusive report, published in today's The Australian newspaper.
We put $300,000 in AWU slush fund, says Bruce Wilson's brother-in-law Joe Trio
- by: ANDREW BURRELL
- From:The Australian
- December 22, 201212:00AM
Ex-Thiess executive Joe Trio maintains he knew nothing of the fraud committed under his nose by brother-in-law Bruce Wilson. Picture: Colin Murty Source: The Australian
HE is Bruce Wilson's brother-in-law and he admits he authorised $300,000 in construction company payments that bankrolled the secret slush fund at the heart of the Australian Workers Union fraud scandal.
But Joe Trio, a former senior executive at building giant Thiess, maintains he knew nothing of the fraud committed under his nose by Mr Wilson and his bagman, fellow AWU official Ralph Blewitt, until told by the West Australian police fraud squad.
Speaking publicly for the first time about his part in a scandal that has dogged Julia Gillard and raised questions about Thiess's motives in making the payments, the Perth construction industry veteran says he is fed up with hearing rumours that he was complicit in the fraud.
Mr Trio says he had no role in drafting the 1992 formal agreement between Thiess and the AWU that involved the company paying the union for its co-operation in training machinery operators and boosting productivity on the West Australian government-funded Dawesville Cut proj
The payments Thiess made under the deal with Mr Wilson never went to the AWU but to a slush fund known as the AWU Workplace Reform Association.
The association was set up in early 1992 by Mr Wilson using legal advice provided by Ms Gillard, who was then his girlfriend and a salaried partner at law firm Slater & Gordon in Melbourne.
About $100,000 from the association was funnelled into the 1993 purchase of a house in Melbourne that was bought in Mr Blewitt's name and lived in by Mr Wilson. The Prime Minister attended the auction.
Ms Gillard has repeatedly denied she had any knowledge of what the association was going to be used for, and has also denied receiving any benefit.
Mr Wilson claimed last month he did not benefit from the AWU Workplace Reform Association and accused Mr Blewitt of withdrawing money from the entity and burying it in his backyard. "There was no fraud on my part," he told the ABC's 7.30.
The Weekend Australian can reveal that Thiess never checked that the AWU Workplace Reform Association - to which the company forwarded monthly cheques for more than two years - was a legitimate body.
When the fraud came to light in 1995, Mr Trio and his boss at Thiess, Nick Jukes, refused direct requests from the West Australian Fraud Squad and the AWU to press charges against Mr Wilson and Mr Blewitt.
Mr Trio and Mr Jukes, who is now the chief executive of ASX-listed mining services company Sedgman in Brisbane, told police that they did not wish to press charges because the union had, in fact, provided all the training services that Thiess had paid for.
But questions remain over why Thiess needed to pay $100,000 a year to the AWU to encourage its workers on the Dawesville Cut project, 80km south of Perth, to undergo skills training.
Former AWU state secretary Tim Daly, who blew the whistle on the fraud, claims the Thiess payments were designed to "buy industrial peace" on a project at a time that construction companies in WA were experiencing difficulties in dealings with unions.
He says the AWU provided nothing at the Dawesville Cut that the union would not have provided on a major construction project.
Mr Trio denies the deal was done to buy industrial peace. "This was money paid to the AWU to have their co-operation in training," he says. "In those days, unless you had the union behind everything that you did, it was very, very difficult - strikes, intimidation, all of the nonsense that went on in those days.
"I guess the guys over east thought 'Maybe if we get these (union) guys on side, our training program will run a lot smoother'."
Mr Daly, of the AWU, recalls that in the mid-1990s he phoned Mr Jukes, who was based in Brisbane with Thiess, and told him that the WA Director of Public Prosecutions needed Thiess to press charges if the matter was to be prosecuted. "I said to him I wanted to send those two crooks (Wilson and Blewitt) to jail," Mr Daly says.
"But he said to me: 'I'm not complaining, I got what I paid for.' "
In an interview with The Weekend Australian, Mr Jukes says Thiess had believed its payments were going directly to the AWU and the company co-operated with the WA fraud squad investigation, handing over all paperwork related to the 1992 agreement. "They said to us, 'You guys need to press charges'," he says.
"We said that we hadn't been defrauded; we were given the service by the AWU, and if this money has gone off to an account that isn't a legitimate AWU account, this is an issue between the AWU and its management, not an issue with Thiess.
"They intimated that if Thiess didn't press charges, it would be very hard for them to prosecute.
"We said we didn't understand the logic of pressing charges if we got the service we paid for."
Mr Jukes concedes it is very unlikely anyone at Thiess checked the legitimacy of the AWU Workplace Reform Association before writing cheques to it.
It is believed the association had not even been incorporated by the WA Commissioner for Corporate Affairs at the time the first Thiess payments were made in early 1992.
Mr Jukes says he had no reason to suspect Mr Wilson may have been deceptive and he believed all along that the AWU Workplace Reform Association was a legitimate AWU body. He also rejects claims that the payments were aimed at buying industrial peace on the project, which was completed ahead of time and on budget without any industrial action.
He says he feels sorry for Mr Trio, who has been subject to allegations he was complicit in Wilson's fraud. "Joe's fingerprints aren't on this at all," he says.
"If anybody's are on it, I did the deal and the HR people in Thiess did the deal, not Joe."
Mr Trio says he married Mr Wilson's sister while Mr Wilson was still in high school. When Mr Trio returned to Perth from the US to work for Thiess in the early 90s, he says he "discovered" that Mr Wilson had become an official with the AWU.
He had "very little involvement" with Mr Wilson during the Dawesville Cut project because the union boss was transferred to Melbourne with the AWU.
But Mr Trio did have plenty of dealings with Mr Blewitt, Mr Wilson's key ally, who has since admitted his part in the fraud.
He believes Mr Blewitt and other "union thugs" are behind many of the allegations that have circulated against him.
The WA fraud squad declined to comment on its investigation.