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Cairns Aquarium referred to CCC over alleged misuse of coronavirus funding

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The State Government has referred the Cairns Aquarium in far north Queensland to the Crime and Corruption Commission over allegations it misused coronavirus support funding.

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Cairns Aquarium chief executive Daniel Leipnik says he is taken aback after the company was told a $3.5 million State Government Industry Support Package grant will be terminated.

The aquarium operators were informed yesterday by the Department of State Development that a $3.5 million State Government Industry Support Package grant they had received would be terminated.

A letter to the aquarium from the department obtained by the ABC alleged the money was used to make payments to related entities, donate to a political party, and purchase a new vehicle.

The Cairns Aquarium denied it misused the funds and said the purchases were made with their own operating costs.

The Government said the financial assistance should be used to cover a shortfall of funds for the aquarium to “meet its reasonable costs of operating and maintaining essential facilities and caring for animals, and due to extraordinary events that prevented businesses operating as normal, or at all, due to COVID-19 restrictions.”

The aquarium had so far received about $1 million out of the total $3.5 million grant.

Leipnik said he was taken aback by the decision, and that the aquarium had transparent accounting.

“We’ve got very open and transparent accounting books, we use an independent bookkeeper, an independent accounting firm and all our accounts are independently audited,” Leipnik said.

“One of the important things is the grant that we received was to cover operating costs, and the items that we have purchased have been purchased from the revenues that we’ve received from ticketing sales.

“We re-opened the business on the 27th of June and there has been a decent amount of sales … but we’ve used our discretion and purchased things that we feel are important for the business and for the region, and we’ve used that with our own operating costs.

“Where the state seems to have taken issue is they asked us to provide all of our costs through the business and we’ve provided that, and I believe there is some issue taken where they feel that it was their money used for these operating items, but in fact it wasn’t.

“It was funds from $2 million of ticketing sales since we reopened.”

Donation disclosures from the Electoral Commission of Queensland showed the Cairns Aquarium and Research Centre made a $10,000 donation to the Queensland Labor Party on August 8, 2020.

Leipnik said the grant funds were not used for the donation.

“The aquarium’s actually been providing political donations, and ones we consider to be quite small, to both sides of politics for several years now,” he said.

“We find that’s a very important aspect to arm these candidates or MPs with support from the tourism industry so they go in to bat for the tourism industry both in Brisbane and in Canberra.

“And, again, we’ve utilised our own revenues to make those donations.

“We’re so disappointed with this letter, with these allegations, with this cancellation because we’ve worked so hard to create an amazing attraction.

“We work tirelessly all throughout the work to look after visitors to Cairns to create jobs for 50 staff.

“We feel like we’re doing everything right to bolster the region and this is just so disappointing to get this kind of response from the State.”

In a statement, Deputy Premier and Minister for State Development Steven Miles said the State Development Department had referred the matter to the Crime and Corruption Commission for investigation.

He said the Industry Support Package was established to support businesses and help them stay afloat during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have a responsibility to taxpayers to ensure these grants are used appropriately to help Queensland’s economy recover,” he said.

“The State’s decision to withdraw this grant has not been taken lightly but is the result of strict checks to ensure grant funds are not misused.

“I can confirm Queensland Labor is in the process of refunding their donation.

“I call on the LNP to give back all political party donations given to them by related parties of Cairns Aquarium.”

ECQ records also showed Leipnik made a personal $2000 donation to the Queensland LNP on June 6, 2020.

However, that donation was not referred to in the letter from the Department and is not part of the allegations.

LNP leader David Crisafulli said he had not seen the details but was “happy to look into it”.

– ABC / Rachel Riga

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