A South Australian country mayor “walked a fine ethical line” by assisting to broker a deal for the purchase of a Coonawarra winery by a Chinese company, but has been cleared of misconduct following an investigation by the SA Ombudsman.
The Independent Commissioner Against Corruption referred Mount Gambier mayor Andrew Lee to ombudsman Wayne Lines over allegations involving the Rymill Coonawarra winery, including that he used his position to gain shares.
“It was alleged that Mayor Lee had not paid commercial value for his share in the Rymill winery,” Mr Lines said in his report into the matter.
Mr Lee also faced claims he assisted in brokering a deal to sell the winery to Shandong-based company the Landbridge Group while on a taxpayer-funded trip to China in April 2016.
“Mayor Lee maintains that his 5 per cent share in the winery is not a gift, but payment for the valuable consideration he provided in brokering the deal,” Mr Lines said.
In his final report released yesterday, Mr Lines found no evidence to “establish that Mayor Lee conducted personal business” during the visit, or that he committed misconduct.
“Although Mayor Lee did send two emails from his mayoral account and inappropriately used his business card in his dealings … these mistakes are not serious enough for a finding of misconduct,” Mr Lines wrote.
“As principal officer of his council, Mayor Andrew Lee walked a very fine ethical line dealing with the Landbridge Group as intermediary in a large commercial transaction.
“Given the language and cultural differences involved, and perhaps an incomplete understanding of the history of the deal on the part of some observers, it is not difficult to see why some in Australia have concluded that Mayor Lee’s business dealings in the winery sale were suspicious.”
But in a final rebuke, Mr Lines advised Mr Lee to “examine and clarify any actions that may give rise to a perception that he is using his elected office for personal gain”.