UNE chancellor denies hiding pub deal

Rumours were circulating in the NSW regional city of Armidale that something was amiss about the new ownership of the Tattersalls Hotel.

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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.

Market and dollar shrugs off disasters

The share market is pushing through six year highs and the Aussie dollar is stubbornly hovering around 94 US cents despite the MH17 tragedy and escalating conflict in Gaza.

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Aside from a knee-jerk reaction, the geopolitical crises haven’t rattled investors, who continue to chase the high rates of return found in the Aussie dollar and local shares, analysts say.

“Investors have quickly worked out that those events were unlikely to threaten the global economic recovery,” AMP Capital Investors chief economist Shane Oliver told AAP.

“The plane tragedy is a horrible event but the conflict is largely confined to eastern Ukraine.

“There’s nothing that’s going to lead to a major war with Russia.”

While tension in Gaza has escalated, it’s been a conflict that’s been bubbling in the background for years, he said.

“Investors have been jumping at that shadow for many years now and it’s largely seen as a continuation of what we’ve seen in the past,” Dr Oliver said added.

“The conflict in Iraq earlier this year did unsettle markets because of the threat to oil supplies, but that threat has eased.

“These geopolitical crises hit the headlines but as financial markets are concerned, they don’t have lasting impacts.”

Dr Oliver expects the local ASX200 index to hit 6,000 points by at least June next year, a benchmark not breached since May 2008.

Despite predictions the Aussie dollar would fall this year, and the Reserve Bank’s best efforts to talk it down, the currency also remains trapped between 93 and 95 US cents.

Easy Forex senior currency dealer Francisco Solar says many are still predicting it to fall to at least 90 US cents by the end of the year, but it all hinges on the world’s largest economy.

“For the Aussie to push above 95 US cents or to fall below 93 there has to be a change in the US,” he said.

“If the US economy continues to pick up and interest rates rise then the US dollar will lift and the Aussie will fall.

“The big question is ‘when will the US lift interest rates?’

“This is not clear.”

Dr Oliver said an improving US jobs market was a sign the first rate hike in the US was on the horizon.

And while political tensions rise across the world, he predicts the monetary backdrop will remain supportive for investment markets.

Survivors in Air Algerie crash ‘unlikely’

France’s transport minister said Friday it was extremely unlikely, and even “out of the question” that any of the 116 people on board an Air Algerie plane that crashed over Mali had survived.

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“Given the state of the plane (wreck), it is very unlikely, even out of the question, that there are any survivors,” Frederic Cuvillier said.

He’s also ruled out the possiblity the plane was shot down by rebels in Mali’s restive north.

“We have excluded from the start the possibility of a strike from the ground,” he said.

French military forces are enroute to the site where the jet, which was carrying at least 51 French nationals, crashed.

French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said weather was the most probable cause of the crash although authorities were not excluding other potential causes.

Flight AH5017, which took off from Ouagadougou bound for Algiers went missing early Thursday amid reports of heavy storms, company sources and officials said.

The airline said there were also 24 Burkinabe, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, six Spanish, five Canadians, four Germans and two Luxembourg nationals on board.

The wreckage of the plane was found in Mali near the Burkina Faso border.

“We have found the Algerian plane. The wreck has been located … 50 kilometres north of the Burkina Faso border” in the Malian region of Gossi, General Gilbert Diendiere of the Burkina Faso army said.

“At the moment we have no further information on (the fate of) the passengers but our teams are hard at work,” he said.

Diendiere gave no indication as to what may have caused the plane to crash.

A witness had earlier reported seeing the plane “falling” in the Gossi region.

Algerian radio quoted Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal as saying the plane dropped off the radar at Gao, 500km from the Algerian border.

Mali, Algeria, Niger and France co-ordinated their search efforts under the umbrella of the French-led military intervention in Mali, Operation Serval.

“Even though the aircraft was above Mali it was in airspace managed by the control centre in Niamey in Niger,” an air traffic control official said.

Aviation sources said the MD-83 was leased from Spanish company Swiftair.

Its six-member crew were all Spanish, said Spain’s airline pilots’ union Sepla, and Swiftair confirmed the aircraft went missing less than an hour after take-off.

“The plane was not far from the Algerian frontier when the crew was asked to make a detour because of poor visibility and to prevent the risk of collision with another aircraft on the Algiers-Bamako route,” an airline source said.

“Contact was lost after the change of course.”

The plane had apparently been given the “all clear” following an inspection in France only this week, French civil aviation authority DGAC said.

In France, two crisis units were set up, one at the DGAC and another at the foreign ministry, in addition to two further centres at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris and at Marseille airport.

DGAC said many passengers had been due to catch onward connecting flights to Paris and Marseille.

Informer ‘at risk of ambush’ before death

Police informer Terence Hodson thought he would be safer in his Melbourne home than in witness protection, despite being told he risked being ambushed in the room where he and his wife were found dead.

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Mr Hodson and his wife, Christine, were found murdered in the back room of their Kew home in May 2004, before Mr Hodson was due to give evidence against two detectives in a criminal trial.

An inquest into their deaths on Friday heard Mr Hodson had received a phone call implying he should keep his mouth shut.

Mr Hodson, a long-time police informer, was to be the key witness over the burglary of a drug stash allegedly involving him and drug squad members Paul Dale and David Miechel.

Former Ethical Standards Department detective Murray Gregor said he had made a number of offers for Mr Hodson and his family to join the witness protection program, but Mr Hodson declined, saying he felt safe in his own home.

However, Mr Gregor said Mr Hodson had told him he expected “something to happen” and he was afraid of Mr Dale and Miechel.

Mr Gregor said he advised Mr Dale that his home’s rear room was not safe because it was isolated from the rest of the house.

He told the Victorian Coroners Court he feared Mr Hodson was at risk of ambush in the back room.

“I believe that if he kept out of that separate room, in all likelihood he and his wife would still be alive today,” Mr Gregor said.

Mr Gregor said Mr Hodson received a phone call in late 2003 in which someone told him: “Stick together. There’s no need to go on board with anyone.”

Mr Gregor, who investigated the burglary, said there was a message behind the phone call.

“My interpretation of that message was very clear: for Hodson to keep his mouth shut and not go against Dale and Miechel,” he said.

Under cross-examination from Mr Dale’s barrister, Geoffrey Steward, Mr Gregor agreed that Mr Hodson had said he had not felt threatened by the call.

Mr Gregor also agreed there was no evidence about who had made the call.

Former homicide squad detective Cameron Davey said that during the investigation of the couple’s murders, police found that Mr Hodson’s informer reports had been given to a career criminal in Queensland.

Mr Dale and contract killer Rodney Charles Collins were charged over the Hodsons’ murders in 2009, but the charges were withdrawn the following year after gangland figure Carl Williams was killed in prison.

Collins and Mr Dale deny any involvement.

In 2006, Miechel was found guilty of his part in the burglary and jailed for at least 12 years.

The burglary charges against Mr Dale were withdrawn.

Poor weather likely cause of Algeria plane crash

(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)

 

Investigators believe severe storms may have played a part in a plane crash over Mali that killed all of the more than 100 people on board.

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They say the pilot signalled bad weather was in the area before the jet dropped off the radar.

 

Greg Navarro reports.

 

(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)

 

In Lebanon, relatives huddled around a picture of their five year-old niece and feared the worst after hearing an Air Algerie flight was missing – the plane the little girl was on.

Their fears were confirmed hours later when General Gilbert Diendiere of the Burkina Faso Army, made an announcement about a discovery in Mali near the Algerian border.

 

(Translated) “We sent a scouting team to the location indicated by locals but unfortunately we do not have any more details but I can guarantee we have found the plane.”

 

The plane, carrying 116 passengers and crew, took off from Burkina Faso bound for Algeria.

 

About 50 minutes into the flight the pilot requested to change course because of severe storms.

 

General Diendiere said a short time later the jet, carrying mostly French passengers, dropped off the radar.

 

French fighter jets were scrambled to find any sign of the plane.

 

(Translated) “One thing is certain. There was a thunderstorm, and I think that may have been the cause of the accident, because the plane did indeed deviate from its route. The pilot said he was trying to avoid the thunderstorm, so we’re thinking that may be the cause of the accident.”

Hours later, the wreckage of a plane was found in the desert in Mali, near the city of Gao.

 

That area has been fought over by rival groups in recent years, including al Qaeda, but there’s no suggestion they had anything to do with the crash.

French President Francois Hollande says the families of those on board deserve to know what happened.

 

(Translated) “I will stay here in Paris for as long as necessary. I have decided to postpone the trip I was going to make to Reunion, Mayotte and Comoros. Everyone will understand. This is a moment of seriousness and pain.”

Especially for those left to grieve and to wait to bring their loves ones home.