I urged Slipper staffer James Ashby to go to court, says Mal Brough
- From: The Australian
- May 05, 2012
FORMER Liberal cabinet minister Mal Brough has admitted telling James Ashby to go to the police and take legal action over allegations of sexual harassment and misuse of taxi vouchers by Peter Slipper after a series of secret meetings with the political staffer earlier this year.After a Gillard government campaign to link federal opposition MPs to the court action that led Mr Slipper to step down as Speaker, Mr Brough yesterday revealed he was briefly a confidant to Mr Ashby, even organising him legal advice, in the weeks before the adviser launched his explosive law suit against his then boss.
Mr Brough, who is standing for pre-selection in Mr Slipper's Queensland seat of Fisher at the next federal election, rejected speculation the Liberal National Party turncoat had been snared in a "honey trap" set by Mr Ashby with the backing of senior Coalition figures.
The one-time indigenous affairs minister in the Howard government, who lost his seat in the 2007 election landslide, revealed his role in Mr Ashby's court action as Labor stepped up its bid to tie Tony Abbott and Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne into setting up the Speaker.
In an exclusive interview, Mr Brough outlined the chain of events that led Mr Ashby to file his legal claim in relation to the sexual harassment he alleges to have suffered at Mr Slipper's hands, as well as the veteran MP's alleged misuse of taxi dockets, now the subject of an Australian Federal Police investigation. Mr Slipper has denied all the allegations.
Mr Brough said Mr Ashby had sought him out for help on the advice of local party official Valerie Bradford. Ms Bradford, a grandmother and 38-year member of the Nationals and now the LNP, had recruited Mr Ashby to join the party early last year after meeting him when he was working at a local strawberry farm as a marketing manager.
Despite initially being "suspicious", Mr Brough met the parliamentary adviser on three occasions in March and April - each time advising him he "needed to sit down with a lawyer". "I said to him that my strong view was that you need to make sure you are on extremely strong ground because the media, the government and Mr Slipper will tear you apart," Mr Brough said he told Mr Ashby during the second meeting in late March.
"I said that you had better know that what you are saying is true and beyond any doubt."And, if it is, my strong advice to you is to go to the AFP with your claims of criminality and you had better get yourself legal advice regarding the civil matter."
In between the meetings, Mr Brough said he consulted only a few trusted people about the allegations - without using any names - but that he brought a person "with a legal background" to the last meeting to advise Mr Ashby, who, he says, then informed them he had already engaged his own lawyers.
Mr Brough denies ever speaking to any opposition MPs, their staffers or the LNP about Mr Ashby and his allegations. "I did not speak to Pyne, or Pyne's office, or to Abbott or anybody like that," he said. Mr Brough, who waged a two-year campaign in the LNP branch to oust Mr Slipper as candidate at the next election, said he had had little interaction with Mr Ashby before the "distressed" parliamentary adviser approached him.
A local LNP branch chairwoman, Mrs Bradford said she had tried to convince Mr Ashby to reject Mr Slipper's job offers, made before and after he was elected Speaker last November, and then progressively heard his allegations of harassment over the months he worked for the party turncoat, including being urged to shower with the door open.
Mrs Bradford said she eventually had told Mr Ashby to contact Mr Brough over the allegations after seeing some mobile text messages allegedly exchanged between the adviser and his boss. "I had been speaking to James for weeks about what was happening and he was becoming really distressed," Mrs Bradford said. "I told him to see a doctor, which he did, and talk to a solicitor, but he didn't have one."He had been staying with Mr Slipper and at the time he told me about the shower door incident, and the text messages and him even asking if he could kiss James. "In early March, James came back to town and he wanted to talk to someone who knew about the parliamentary processes and what could be done. He didn't want to talk to an MP, and we talked, and I could only think of Mal Brough."
On the eve of Queensland's March 24 election, Mr Brough said he had received a telephone call from Mr Ashby, asking to meet him. Mr Brough said he was suspicious of Mr Ashby, because he was a staffer of his political rival and a party member who had unsuccessfully run for election as an LNP official last year against Mr Brough's own team, which eventually took over the branch.
The former MP, who lost the neighbouring seat of Longman in the 2007 federal election, said he had relented and agreed to meet Mr Ashby on March 23. The meeting with Mr Brough and his wife, Sue, acting as a "witness", went for several hours and initially focused on whether Mr Ashby was behind a social media campaign that had been attacking Mr Brough over his planned pre-selection bid, scheduled for later this year. "We went over that (the attacks) and around that for a very long time and the whole time there is this background, 'There are things in Slipper's office that aren't right'," Mr Brough alleged. "And I was going, 'Yeah, well, surprise, surprise'.
"It wasn't until very late in the piece that he started to put a bit of meat on the bone, so to speak, and say that he felt he had been harassed, and talked about the Cabcharge stuff." Ms Brough supports her husband's recollection that Mr Ashby offered few details of the allegations at the first meeting and that he had said he wanted the former MP's advice on what to do.
The first meeting ended with Mr Brough warning him the allegations were "extremely serious", he should go to the AFP over his concerns about Mr Slipper's use of taxi dockets and that he would seek some advice on Mr Ashby's behalf. The following week, Mr Brough said he had had another meeting with Mr Ashby in which he advised him to seek his own legal counsel and outlined the advice he had received, concerning the alleged sexual harassment.
"I had taken some soundings as to all this - I spoke to someone in the legal fraternity - and I had learnt his (sexual) allegations were ... a civil action if he chose to take it and the other matter was a criminal matter, if he chose to take it," he said.Mr Brough said Mr Ashby then showed him a text message that went into more detail about his allegations against Mr Slipper.
He said a lawyer friend was at the next meeting with Mr Ashby early last month and began to go through the material with the adviser, who then revealed he had engaged his own lawyers in Brisbane and was meeting them on April 10 "He rang me from Brisbane where he had some long conversations with lawyers, that was on the Tuesday after Easter (April 10), and that he was going to Sydney to have further discussions with lawyers," Mr Brough said.
He said he had "no regrets" about his involvement with Mr Ashby and dismissed the conspiracy theories that the adviser was placed in Mr Slipper's office to entrap him and bring down the government, which had installed Mr Slipper to gain an extra vote on the floor of parliament. "All these people are crawling over it and I won't lie," Mr Brough said. "I just feel there is this storm of innuendo, that the LNP was behind it, that he (Mr Ashby) was a 'honey-pot' and it is all drivel."
Mr Brough said he believed he had a "moral obligation" to listen to Mr Ashby and would offer the same advice to anybody making similar claims. Mr Brough said he believed Mr Ashby had "clearly spoken to other people" when he was considering taking action.
Mr Brough's revelations came as Wayne Swan yesterday called on Mr Abbott and Mr Pyne to face questions about their dealings with Mr Ashby before he filed his Federal Court action last month. Mr Abbott yesterday admitted that Mr Pyne, manager of opposition business, had sent an email to Mr Ashby after the pair had drinks in the Speaker's office on March 19. But Mr Abbott said Mr Pyne had not made further contact with Mr Ashby.
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