Obeid businesses in ICAC spotlight

Former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid lives in a $10 million mansion in Hunters Hill that is in his wife's name, drives a top of the line Mercedes and the family is about to undertake renovations costing more than $2 million.

Yet for the past decade, when he was in the NSW Parliament, Mr Obeid's pecuniary interest register made remarkably quick reading: his only income was his parliamentary salary. His only assets were a house in Matrit, Lebanon, where he was born, and for a while a modest house in Concord. Just before he retired, he declared a $1 million unit in Port Macquarie.

Before he joined Parliament and in his early years as a backbencher, Mr Obeid was the patriarch of a business empire that had interests in ethnic publishing and property development. His sons ran a company called Streetscape Enterprises that bid for contracts to install flagpoles throughout the city and at the Olympic venues.

But, when he became Minister for Mineral Resources and Fisheries in 1999, Mr Obeid's extensive business interests began to attract intense scrutiny from the opposition and the media. After a number of embarrassing incidents where the opposition found discrepancies between company records and the pecuniary interest register, Mr Obeid divested all his shareholdings in family businesses and trusts to his sons.

Over the next decade, the family amassed great wealth.

Obeid companies were involved in property development, farming, restaurants, function centres, health care consulting and more recently, investments in areas rich in coal. Streetscape won contracts throughout the city to provide street furniture.

It even expanded to the Middle East and Asia, a move that would lead to litigation with the City of Sydney over royalties for use of the designs - and help disclose the full extent of the Obeid empire.

The media and the opposition remained sceptical that Minister Obeid had in fact severed ties with the family business, and that he was not receiving benefits from it.

In October 2002, Fairfax Media's Kate McClymont revealed Mr Obeid had accompanied his sons and a prospective investor on a flight to Port Macquarie to inspect a large parcel of coastal land owned by Milland, a company his sons controlled.

An angry Mr Obeid used parliamentary privilege to blast Fairfax Media for suggesting he was involved in the sale discussions.

Despite this furore,former roads minister Eric Roozendaal told the ICAC last week he was unaware that Mr Obeid's family owned land at Port Macquarie when Mr Obeid came to lobby him about an upgrade to the Pacific Highway.

In 2004 Fairfax Media investigated whether the Obeid family were the owners of three leases for cafes at Circular Quay. During the litigation with City of Sydney this year, financial records emerged which revealed the Obeids were getting $700,000 a year from the cafes and were the secret owners. In May it was revealed that Mr Obeid had lobbied Mr Roozendaal during his time as waterways minister, when he was in charge of Circular Quay, without disclosing his interest in the cafes.

Crucially, the government abandoned a scheduled tender in 2005 that would have threatened the family's control over the lucrative leases.

This weekend Fairfax Media revealed more business dealings. The Obeid family were secret shareholders in a company, Direct Health Solutions, that was touting for contracts from the NSW Government to help manage their sick leave entitlements. The former state treasurer, Michael Costa told the Herald: "Eddie Obeid asked me to see representatives of the company, " adding that Mr Obeid failed to reveal his family's interest in DHS. Mr Obeid says DHS has nothing to do with him and he cannot recall the meeting.

But the biggest puzzle of all has been the Obeid family's investment in 2007 in coal rich areas near Mudgee. The Australian Financial Review first revealed that the Obeid family trust had bought Cherrydale Park for $3.65 million in Bylong. It also tracked a tender for coal exploration licences which were awarded by Mr Obeid's colleague, Ian MacDonald, to small and medium-sized operators.

One of the successful bidders was controlled by two men who were friends of Moses Obeid, Mr Obeid's eldest son. Another, Cascade Coal, had a hidden shareholder who was MacDonald's close friend, Greg Jones. And one of the exploration licences is bang smack under the Obeid property in Bylong.

ICAC will now try to establish whether there was any corruption in awarding the tenders.

The story Obeid businesses in ICAC spotlight first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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