John Barilaro personally approached former New South Wales Labor leader Jodi McKay about a trade commissioner job in India, raising further questions about the role senior ministers in the government have played in the appointment process for the controversial $500,000-a-year functions.
Barilaro, whose recent appointment as New York trade commissioner has become embroiled in controversy, was still NSW deputy premier when he sounded out McKay last year about her interest in the India role, the Guardian understands.
While McKay did not get the job – Vishwesh Padmanabhan was appointed to the role in December last year – Barilaro’s approach is significant because the NSW government has insisted the public service, not government ministers, were responsible for the appointments.
Last week the premier, Dominic Perrottet, said the chief executive of Investment NSW, Amy Brown, was the “final decision-maker” in appointing Barilaro.
Discussions were underway on Monday about the possibility of reversing the controversial decision to hand Barilaro the plum New York trade commissioner job as early as this week.
While the government would probably have to pay Barilaro compensation if it did decide to pull the offer, the worsening scandal has become an unwanted distraction after the release of its final pre-election budget last week.
However, questions about the appointment will persist even if the government does move to scupper Barilaro’s New York position.
An upper-house inquiry into the appointment will begin on Wednesday. At the same time, former NSW public service commissioner Graeme Head has been tasked with conducting the government’s review of the work.
Sky News first reported that McKay was being considered for the India job last August, and Barilaro did not deny the report.
“As the trade minister in NSW, I can say that we are always looking for candidates,” he said at the time.
“We are going through a process at the moment. Those candidates could be anyone and everyone, and there is a mixed bag of candidates … I think what you’ve read in the media is a view and what Jodi has said, but I’ll leave it at that.”
Both Barilaro and McKay were approached for comment.
There is no suggestion that Barilaro’s approach meant he could influence the outcome.
Investment NSW has insisted it did not receive “formal” approval from senior ministers before giving Barilaro the New York job, although documents showing public servants discussed getting signoff from Perrottet.
On Saturday, the Guardian revealed officials inside Investment NSW discussed gaining “approval” from Perrottet and the state’s trade minister, Stuart Ayres, as recently as November last year.
While the emails do not specify which of the six trade commissioner roles established by Barilaro in 2019 was being discussed, a staff member inside the agency stated that a meeting between Ayres and one of the candidates on 4 November “went well”.
“The [minister] is happy to progress to the premier for his approval,” the official wrote the following day.
Three days later, another public servant responded: “Is any action required on our end currently to progress this, or will Minister Ayres’ office deal directly with the Premier on these approvals?”
The discussion came months after public servants were told cabinet approval was no longer required for the roles. In August, a senior official inside Investment NSW wrote the agency had been “advised that Cabinet approval for the candidates is no longer required”.
However, the same official asked whether it was “simply a matter of us now preparing the standard briefs” for “endorsement” by the deputy premier, treasurer, and premier.
The Guardian put questions about the emails to the premier’s office but received a response from an Investment NSW spokesperson who said there was no “formal” ministerial approval for the positions.
“These roles are not statutory; they are public service roles established under the Government Sector Employment Act and regulations,” the spokesperson said.
“Investment NSW employs senior trade and investment commissioners.
“Investment NSW can confirm no formal approvals were required or obtained from any ministers or the premier concerning [trade commissioner] appointments to ASEAN, India and the Middle East, the Americas or Greater China.”
On Saturday, the Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary, Michael Coutts-Trotter, said that Head would lead the government’s review of the appointment. That was despite Perrottet previously saying Coutts-Trotter himself would lead the probe. Sign up to receive the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning.
On Monday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the preferred candidate for the position before Barilaro’s appointment, former senior public servant Jenny West, had previously contacted Coutts-Trotter to raise concerns about the recruitment process.
The Guardian has also confirmed the approach took place, with West raising concerns about the recruitment process after she was told she had got the job by the former premier Gladys Berejiklian in August last year.
The Guardian previously revealed that Brown, the CEO of Investment NSW, emailed recruitment firm, NGS Global, to say the New York appointment would be handled as an “internal matter” on the day before Barilaro quit parliament.