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Great Barrier Reef Foundation board director steps down following criminal charges

Investment banker Stephen Roberts steps down from GBRFs board following criminal charges amid $444m grant controversy

The Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF) has confirmed one of its board directors will step down as he faces criminal charges for cartel conduct.

Stephen Roberts, an investment banker and GBRF board director, has been charged by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) for allegedly playing a part of a criminal cartel during a $2.5 billion deal.

ACCC Chairman, Rod Sims, said: “These serious charges are the result of an ACCC investigation that has been running for more than two years.”

The charges, which included other banking chief executives and senior staff, were laid by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions and will be determined in court.

Roberts was Citigroup’s former country head and has been a director of the GBRF since 2015, the same year the offences were alleged to have happened.

This comes as the GBRF is already linked to the negative news after it received a controversial $444 million grant by the Turnbull government. The funding, made from taxpayer’s money, was given in a bid to protect Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

However, the government did not go through the appropriate competitive process.  Labor and Greens recently questioned the reasons behind it and have called for an investigation.

Labor Senator, Anthony Chisholm, had demanded accountability from government officials during Senate estimate hearings this month, saying: “You’ve forked out $450 million to this group that have 10 staff.”

The Opposition questioned why the funds were allocated to GBRF rather than the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority or the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

In a recent estimates hearing, Labor Senator, Kristine Keneally, said: “I am trying to understand how the greatest single contribution from the government to the Great Barrier Reef in Australian history went to one foundation without a tender process.

“Without advertising, without a competitive process and, it would seem, without an invitation from the government to the foundation to apply.”

The Turnbull government said during the same estimates hearing that they recognised there would be risks and challenges for the small foundation to handle the single greatest donation to the Great Barrier Reef, but concluded they would go ahead.

“The government took assurance that, while the scale of the investment was beyond what the foundation was managing now, it would be able to step up.”

The Department continued to justify the grant, explaining that the people on the board had extensive experience in the corporate and philanthropic sectors, and they were, “Reasonably confident in their capacity to oversee the operations of the foundation.”

The Great Barrier Reef Foundation has since removed any reference to Roberts on their website as Environment Minister, Josh Frydenberg, continues to support the grant.

“The foundation has a strong board with a cross-section of eminent individual’s form the academic, business and scientific community and we look forward to working with them as we continue to roll out our record new $500 million investment in the conservation and preservation of the Great Barrier Reef.”

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