Australian minister stands aside over corruption probe

Australian minister stands aside over corruption probe

SYDNEY - Australia's assistant treasurer on Wednesday became the first casualty of Tony Abbott's government since it took office six months ago when he stood aside after being linked to a corruption probe.

Arthur Sinodinos has been called to appear at a New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) inquiry investigating allegations involving the private firm Australian Water Holdings (AWH).

No allegations have been levelled against Sinodinos - who denies any wrongdoing - but he was on the board of AWH before coming to parliament.

Sinodinos told Australia's upper house, the Senate, that he would be standing down as assistant treasurer while the inquiry was ongoing, though Abbott stressed the move was not a resignation.

"I do not want this sideshow to be an unnecessary distraction from the important work of the government, which I am proud to serve," Sinodinos said.

"Whilst this process is underway, I will therefore be standing aside as assistant treasurer." The ICAC inquiry has already heard that Sinodinos, a respected chief-of-staff to former prime minister John Howard, was paid Aus$200,000 (S$231,000) a year plus bonuses while at AWH for about 100 hours of work.

The inquiry also heard that Sinodinos stood to gain up to Aus$20 million through his shareholdings if a lucrative deal went through between AWH and the state-owned Sydney Water Corporation.

Several individuals linked to AWH face claims that they benefitted financially from 2004 to 2012 by inflating costs charged to the Sydney Water Corporation, and then deliberately prevented it from ascertaining whether the charges were justifiable.

Abbott, who has promised voters stability and mature government after years of bitter infighting under previous administrations, said Sinodinos had "done the right and decent thing".

The prime minister said Sinodinos would draw no ministerial salary while stood down, and added: "I look forward to his restoration to the ministry."

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