Rumours were circulating in the NSW regional city of Armidale that something was amiss about the new ownership of the Tattersalls Hotel.
It was January, 2006, and the then-chancellor of the local University of New England (UNE), John Cassidy, had just announced that he had bought a stake in the Tattersalls – not long after the dilapidated pub had been sold off by the cash-strapped UNE student union.
The buyer of the three-storey Art Deco establishment on Armidale’s central mall was Darrell Hendry, who had topped all offers made under a closed tender with a late bid of $2.65 million.
Mr Hendry was well-known to Mr Cassidy, something the chancellor told UNE when he stated on January 20 that he had decided to invest in the Tattersalls only the day before, following an invitation from Mr Hendry.
The disclosure prompted then-vice chancellor Robin Pollard to make a note that there had been rumours “all might not have been above board” about the deal.
This week the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) heard evidence that Mr Cassidy had considered investing in the Tattersalls much earlier.
But on Friday Mr Cassidy took the stand to deny any improper conduct.
The 69-year-old former chancellor spent a day in the witness box denying allegations he used confidential university information to help win the bidding for the hotel and hid his own role as an investor.
The ICAC heard that Mr Cassidy did not just know Mr Hendry, but that the pair had an ongoing business relationship as directors and owners of Vercot, the company through which Mr Cassidy would own his majority stake of the Tattersalls.
Included in the evidence was testimony from Mr Hendry himself that Mr Cassidy had called him up in November, 2005, and told him to have a look at the hotel as it was a good investment.
A confidential university valuation had priced the hotel at $2.35 million, the commission heard – a tag Mr Cassidy considered to be below market value.
On Friday, Mr Cassidy said that phone conversation with Mr Hendry didn’t happen.
Phone call records showed Mr Cassidy made a 16 minute call to Mr Hendry on November 11, 2005 – coincident with the time Mr Hendry mentioned.
“It could well be – I think there was a share buyback (for Vercot),” Mr Cassidy told counsel assisting Anna Mitchelmore.
Mr Cassidy said he faxed Mr Hendry a newspaper ad for the hotel sale because his friend had joked about owning a country pub, but they never spoke about it.
Mr Cassidy also said he was unaware of complex ownership documents Mr Hendry had drawn up by lawyers from December, 2005, committing him as an investor in the Tattersalls.
When one set of documents was faxed to him around January 11, 2006, he told commissioner Megan Latham he did not know what they were about and put them aside.
Asked if he called Mr Hendry to ask about why he had been sent documents committing him as majority owner of a $2.65 million hotel, Mr Cassidy said he could not recall.
Mr Cassidy also said he did not recall a meeting in December, 2005, to interview a potential manager for the hotel and denied evidence from a former Tattersalls manager Steve Snell that he had been found inspecting the upper floors of the pub in November, 2005.
The ICAC has concluded its formal hearings on the matter and will report at a later date.