When BRW’s star business commentator Adele Ferguson recently jumped ship to become CEO of CT Financial – a subsidiary of powerful lobbying firm and Liberal Party pollster Crosby Textor – media insiders were intrigued. And when it was revealed that she’d also be writing a weekly business column in The Australian, eyebrows were raised: how would she negotiate the murky waters of conflict?

So our interest was piqued when this tip arrived at Crikey this week:

On 12 February, Ferguson wrote an article the front page of the Australian’s Business Section outlining insider views of various corporate manoeuvres to be undertaken by BHP Billiton. The disclaimer on the end of the article read: “Adele Ferguson works for CT Financial, a subsidiary of Crosby Textor. The views expressed here are Ferguson’s alone, not of CT Financial or Crosby Textor.”

However, anybody around Canberra can tell you that Crosby Textor actively works for BHP, and its staff are frequently seen walking around Parliament House together, most recently briefing anybody who will listen about their current bunfight over the Pilbara railway access dispute. Why was the fact that Crosby Textor actually works for BHP not disclosed?

This week, on 26 February, Ferguson had another front page splash  in The Australian running all of Sol Lew’s arguments on his “shareholder” litigation and suggesting that there was an ASIC investigation (none of which was public information). However, interestingly, this article carried no disclaimer at all. Why? Here’s the interesting bit. Crosby Textor is well known for the fact that it has acted for Solomon Lew for many years – including his last big fight with the Coles Myer Board.

The CT Financial website shows that Ferguson’s Managing Director is Jason Aldworth – a long time known associate of Lew who has frequently turned up to company AGMs running the Lew line. Why are the financial interests between Ferguson/Lew/Crosby/Textor not identified?

Lastly, what is the connection between this shadowy CT Financial group, Ferguson, Robert Champion de Crespigny (who is listed on CT Financial’s website as its chairman) and Australian Nuclear Fuel Leasing Pty Ltd? Is this how several Ministers were able to say they did not meet with ANFL – because they actually met with CT Financial?

When Crikey spoke to Ferguson today she was surprised that we would single her column out for scrutiny and told us that “it’s all above board… I guarantee you I would never push a client’s view. Ever.”  

Any future conflicts will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis in discussion with The Oz, she says. The paper does not have a list of Crosby Textor’s clients according to Ferguson, although it does have a letter on file detailing potential conflicts of interest.

There are “no current clients that I’ve written about,” she says. “To my knowledge there’s nothing I’ve written that’s conflicted.”

But are Ferguson’s words carefully chosen? And how would anyone know who Crosby Textor’s “current clients” are?

Editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, today told Crikey that he trusts Ferguson and relies on his “personal relationship” with her to ensure there are no conflicts.

Crikey understands that both BHP Billiton and Solomon Lew have been clients of Crosby Textor, and that one of the three businessmen involved in Australian Nuclear Fuel Leasing – Robert Champion de Crespigny – is chairman of Crosby Textor. Oh, and that Crosby Textor is the Prime Minister’s favoured pollster and election advisory firm.

Peter Fray

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