The Cole inquiry is reaching an amazing crescendo of admissions and disclosures as years of AWB denials, lies and criminal acts come crashing down around what’s left of the company’s ears. When your own lawyers start blaming each other before the inquiry, you know you’re in trouble.

It’s no accident that there seems to be a note of urgency about the way AWB is trying to hive off AWB International and promise wheat growers they’ll be insulated from the Cole inquiry’s financial fallout. Trouble is, you’d have to be a mug to take any comfort from any promise given by this corrupt company. Its credibility is shot.

The mess is summarised in Marian Wilkinson’s reporting of the dissembling AWB’s lawyers have been reduced to:

The documents were sent to AWB’s lawyer, Rosemary Peavey, in 2002 during a dispute between AWB and the London company. But neither she nor any other AWB lawyers alerted the Cole inquiry to their existence until Ms Peavey gave evidence on Wednesday.

Mr Cole said it was “inconceivable” that any lawyer could not believe the documents were relevant to his inquiry, and he should have received them months ago.

In the witness box yesterday, Ms Peavey told Mr Cole she did not know why the critical email from Mr Emons had not been produced. “I think you need to ask the company’s lawyers because Arnold Bloch Leibler has been pulling together all the relevant documents,” she said.

Arnold Bloch Leibler has instructed AWB’s barristers throughout the inquiry. James Judd, QC, for AWB, yesterday apologised profusely to Mr Cole. He suggested that the documents could have shortened the months of hearings. Mr Cole replied there was “no doubt” about that.

It of course might be a pure coincidence that the final damning documents have only been offered up after Terence Cole said he wanted the signature of someone appropriate on a stat dec to the effect that he had been given everything that he should be given.

The targeting of AWB’s lawyers is rather interesting. Wednesday’s grilling of former Blakes senior lawyer Chris Quennell about simultaneously describing the grubby Tigris deal as a debt recovery and a commission (to obtain a tax deduction) was choice. All those very expensive legal fees AWB has been paying in an attempt to hide might prove counter-productive, having sorely tested the commission’s patience.

Which brings one to AWB’s latest announcement to the stock exchange: AWB protects entitlements of wheat growers. AWB says wheat growers will be protected from legal costs arising from the Cole inquiry and any additional tax that might be assessed against AWB International.

As well as an indemnity for the 2006-7 season, AWB is proposing future pools operate as individual trusts for growers. In a corporatefile.com.au interview also released to the ASX, AWB CFO Paul Ingleby was asked if the trust structure was an attempt to circumvent ATO recovery of tax liabilities.

“The indemnity provided by AWB Ltd will ensure that AWBI is able to pay any tax liability, if assessed. The trust structure ensures that each season’s pool participants entitlements are protected,” said Ingleby.

But new managing director Gordon Davis dodged when asked if AWB would cover legal costs from defending a civil action by US farmers seeking damages, only replying that to date no notices had been served on the company.

And the company is still in denial, saying it doesn’t think it will get another tax bill and, if it does, it will fight it, as it will any class action. Oh, the lawyers will be pleased.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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