Victoria’s anti-corruption commission will call former Andrews government minister and Labor factional strongman Adem Somyurek to public hearings in the next fortnight to probe allegations he misused public money to build his power in the party.
It is the first time a former minister has been the primary target of an Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) probe. The inquiry is also likely to expose a Labor Party underbelly that extends well beyond one individual.
“Faceless man” Adem Somyurek (left and centre) was caught handing over cash allegedly for branch-stacking operations to ministerial adviser Nick McLennan (right). Credit:Nine
The public hearings are due to begin October 11, and are likely to grill serving and former MPs, ministers and staffers from the Andrews government over the sacked ex-ALP powerbroker. IBAC has the power to compel witnesses to private or public hearings, where they must answer truthfully or face criminal charges.
The inquiry into Mr Somyurek will be jointly run by IBAC and the Ombudsman in a unique pooling of human and jurisdictional resources by the two watchdogs.
It will be led by IBAC Commissioner and former judge Robert Redlich. Ombudsman Deborah Glass has also seconded investigators to the probe.
IBAC can only launch an inquiry if it “reasonably suspects corrupt conduct has occurred”. It tends to hold public hearings only if it has gained evidence of wrongdoing and assessed that its exposure would be in the public interest.
Mr Somyurek after the branch-stacking allegations aired. Credit:Eddie Jim
Mr Somyurek, who until last year wielded huge political power in the Andrews government and in federal Labor ranks, is at the centre of allegations of taxpayer-funded political malfeasance. The public hearings, which will likely run for days, loom as a major headache for Premier Daniel Andrews.
The Premier sacked Mr Somyurek as a minister in June 2020 after The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes revealed his alleged misconduct. But Mr Andrews’ government and the Labor party was nevertheless shaped by Mr Somyurek for several years even though it was an open secret within the ALP that he had amassed his political power via suspect means.
The investigation could also cause embarrassment for federal Labor because Mr Somyurek served on the ALP’s national executive and cut backroom deals with multiple factional heavyweights until his wrongdoing was exposed.
In June 2020, The Age, Herald and 60 Minutes investigation revealed evidence, including in secret recordings of meetings, that Mr Somyurek and other powerful Labor figures allegedly directed taxpayer-funded parliamentary staffers to help them recruit non-genuine members into local ALP branches.
Premier Daniel Andrews announcing he was sacking Mr Somyurek in June, 2020.Credit:Eddie Jim
His operations involved secret cash drop-offs to pay for fake Labor members — a practice known as branch stacking, which has been endemic in pockets of both the Labor and Liberal parties.
Among the factors Mr Redlich likely considered in deciding to convene public hearings was the fact the Ombudsman previously published a parliamentary report about taxpayer resource rorting by the Andrews government in the so-called “red shirts” affair. The alleged misconduct of Mr Somyurek and some of his allies occurred after that report was tabled in 2016.
Successful branch stackers can control who enters Parliament and the outcome of internal party processes. The practice has been described as a cancer on democracy by past Labor and Liberal leaders. If branch stacking is carried out using public resources, it may also involve the criminal offence of misconduct in public office.
In the covert recordings, Mr Somyurek described a massive branch-stacking machine, saying: “Our people have been putting like industrial-scale numbers, you know, just f—ing masses for a year.” He also spoke of plans to launch a “big f—ing stackathon”.
The investigation by this masthead revealed how state government-funded ethnic community organisations might have been corrupted to harvest ALP branch members.
Mr Somyurek was also caught on covert camera withdrawing cash from an ATM and handing it to a ministerial staffer in a clandestine car park meeting.
IBAC has for months declined to comment on its investigation. Its public hearings are almost certain to trace to the origins of the funds, and examine whether taxpayer-funded staffers were directed to conduct political dealings while ostensibly employed by State Parliament.
After the recordings were published, Mr Somyurek was sacked as a state minister and forced from the ALP. Two other ministers who were his factional allies, Marlene Kairouz and Robin Scott, also stood aside from cabinet.
Before his fall, Mr Somyurek was able to expand his political empire because state and federal MPs feared they could lose their seats if they challenged him.
“I’m more powerful than all of them put together,” he said in one covert tape recording, referring to other Labor powerbrokers.
The recordings of Mr Somyurek have already led to sweeping reforms inside Labor, and the removal of hundreds of non-genuine members as part of an investigation led by former premier Steve Bracks and former federal minister Jenny Macklin.
Similar branch-stacking revelations in the media involving the Liberal Party have prompted expulsions and reform, albeit on a smaller scale.
Mr Somyurek also grew his power by cultivating journalists. After sympathetic media coverage dried up last year, Mr Somyurek used parliamentary privilege in December to attack Mr Andrews as a branch stacker and criticise The Age and 60 Minutes journalist Nick McKenzie, who exposed Mr Somyurek’s misconduct. In June this year, Mr Somyurek filed defamation proceedings after his demands for a $2 million payout and apology were rejected.
Mr Somyurek was appointed Minister for Local Government by Mr Andrews in 2018 despite a patchy record. His previous stint in cabinet, in the first term of the Andrews government, was cut short in 2015 following an allegation of bullying when he was small business, innovation and trade minister. When he was a backbencher in 2009, he lost his job as chair of the Electoral Matters Committee for a driving offence.
The Age has sought comment from Mr Somyurek.
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