By Paul Dykes
Prominent Tauranga businessman Tim Goodacre has been implicated in a $300 million bribery scandal surrounding the Australian Wheat Board and Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime.
An Australian Government inquiry in Melbourne has been told Mr Goodacre had intimate knowledge of the alleged payments and that he agreed to write a clause into employees' contracts absolving them of responsibility for the payments to Iraq.
Commissioner Terence Cole QC is presiding over the inquiry into the nature of secret payments made to Hussein's regime by the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) - an organisation Mr Goodacre held a top job in before moving to Tauranga.
The 51-year-old has been chief executive of the Mount Maunganui-based kiwifruit marketer Zespri International for the past three years.
Mr Goodacre's lawyer, Peter Crombie said no subpoena had been issued requiring his client to attend the hearing in Australia.
"He may choose to do so - there has been no formal request yet. I haven't met with him yet to discuss those allegations."
He said Mr Goodacre returned to New Zealand last night from Europe, where he had been on Zespri business, and the pair would meet this afternoon.
"The allegations were made by a witness last Friday afternoon, and Mr Goodacre has been overseas. We have been assisting on his behalf in the background monitoring evidence."
Mr Crombie said the AWB was required to disclose the names of any of its employees who were in any way involved in the sale of wheat to the Middle East, and Mr Goodacre was named in that respect.
"We haven't had access to all the documents presented to the inquiry. Mr Goodacre is trying to recall things he may have been told, or may not have been told, that occurred six years ago.
"Certain questions have been asked of him about his role, position and who he reported to, which we have assisted the inquiry with."
Mr Crombie said his client may decide to make a statement following the pair's meeting late today.
Mr Goodacre worked for the wheat board in Australia for 12 years and was the group general manager corporate when he was headhunted by Zespri in late 2002.
Evidence to the inquiry has supported allegations that up to A$300 million ($330 million) paid by the wheat board for road transport under the United Nations' scandal-ridden oil-for-food programme was funnelled to Saddam's coffers.
The allegations surrounding the wheat dealings date back to the oil embargo placed on Iraq after the first Gulf War and the development by Saddam of the imposition of kickbacks to create a flow of funds from companies seeking contracts under the oil-for-food programme.
The Australian board became involved in 1999 against fierce US rivalry, with American and Canadian traders later complaining at what they regarded as the suspicious nature of the board's contracts and dealing with Iraqi officials.
Two years ago the first of several US inquiries pointed to the possibility of kickbacks funnelled to Saddam through a Jordanian trucking company, allegedly paid to transport Australian wheat to Iraq.
A UN inquiry last year found the board had illegally paid kickbacks, sparking a new storm in Australia that forced the Government to launch an inquiry that continues to provide evidence to back the allegations.