Former mining minister found guilty of misconduct over coal licence

Former NSW Minister for Mineral Resources Ian Macdonald has been found guilty of wilful misconduct in a public office after he awarded a profitable coal licence to a company led by a former union leader.

The former union boss, John Maitland, was acquitted of being an accessory before the fact to the crimes after he was accused of encouraging the improper decision.

Justice Hament Dhanji handed down his findings in the NSW Supreme Court on Tuesday after a judge-alone trial.

The findings mark the end of a lengthy legal battle after a 2017 trial by jury resulted in jail terms for both men, which were overturned in a 2019 appeal.

Camera IconIan Macdonald has been found guilty of two counts of misconduct in public office. NCA NewsWire / Joel Carrett Credit: News Corp Australia

The retrial heard the charges related to Mr Macdonald’s decision to grant consent for Doyles Creek Mining Pty Ltd to apply for a coal exploration licence in August 2008 and the subsequent determination to award the licence four months later.

Mr Maitland was the chair of the mining company when it was granted the favourable outcomes.

It was established in the trial that the two men knew each other professionally through their respective involvement in the mining industry, although the Crown contended they were friends.

Justice Dhanji disagreed that a relationship between the two was the motive for Mr Macdonald to engage in misconduct for Mr Maitland’s benefit, noting “there is no evidence of any interaction outside a professional context”.

Despite finding there was no direct evidence of “improper motivation” for Mr Macdonald, the judge determined he was guilty of two counts of wilful misconduct in a public office.

The court heard he awarded the coal licence without adhering to a competitive tender process which was commonly used and could have earned the state tens of millions of dollars.

Camera IconThe former NSW Minister for Mineral Resources granted a coal licence without proper consideration, the court heard. NCA NewsWire / Jeremy Piper Credit: News Corp Australia

As Minister for Resources, the judge ruled Mr Macdonald could not “have been unaware of the potential for a significant bid” on the coal licence.

Justice Dhanji found that benefiting Mr Maitland and Doyles Creek Mining was the “driving force” behind Mr Macdonald’s decision to grant the coal licence “such that, but for that motivation, the conduct would not have occurred”.

Mr Macdonald knew he was acting contrary to the requirements of his public office when he made the decision and ignored dissenting advice, the court was told. The judge found there was no reasonable explanation for his actions.

Mr Maitland, the ex-national secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, had been accused of intentionally assisting and encouraging Mr Macdonald to grant his company the coal licence.

However, Justice Dhanji found he had not been instrumental in the decision of the then-Minister of Resources to act contrary to his office.

“Mr Macdonald did misconduct himself, but the evidence to this stage does not suggest Mr Maitland expected or intended this,” he said.

John Maitland - Silverwater
Camera IconFormer union boss John Maitland has been acquitted of two counts of being an accessory to Macdonald’s crimes. Justin Lloyd Credit: News Corp Australia

The Supreme Court judge explained there was “no inconsistency” between his findings of guilt for Mr Macdonald and his acquittal of Mr Maitland.

“Not only was the evidence admitted against each not the same, as I have been at pains to point out, the perspective from which each approached the process, as a result of their particular responsibilities, was very different,” he said.

Mr Macdonald will return to the NSW Supreme Court next year for sentencing.

He is currently behind bars after being sentenced in October last year for his role in plotting to commit misconduct in public office with former NSW Labour MP Eddie Obeid.

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