Bombshell findings of Ombudsman's inquiry into mayor's Philippines trips

TRADE MISSIONS: Mayor John Rohde has come under fire for his actions during two trade missions to the Philippines.

TRADE MISSIONS: Mayor John Rohde has come under fire for his actions during two trade missions to the Philippines.

On the eve of the closure of voting for the mayoralty, sitting Mayor John Rohde has been targeted by the Ombudsman for maladministration and misconduct.

In a sensational development, Ombudsman Wayne Lines recommended that Port Pirie Regional Council reprimand Mr Rohde.

Local government election ballots are due to be lodged by Friday. Mr Lines report was dated October 23.

In another bombshell, Mr Lines said it seemed “possible” that Cr Kendall Jackson had distributed information about Mr Rohde to The Advertiser newspaper, “but I do not formally conclude as such”.

The Ombudsman was called in by the Independent Commission Against Corruption to look at Mr Rohde’s, Cr Jackson’s and Deputy Mayor Cr Leon Stephen’s actions relating to the handling of two council-funded trade missions by Mr Rohde to the Philippines in 2016.

Mr Lines found that Cr Stephens did not disclose confidential information to an external party and did not commit misconduct.

The Ombudsman said that Mr Rohde had met a Filipino woman named Bita, who Mr Rohde previously knew, during his trips and probably had a “romantic” involvement.

“It strains credulity … that the parties maintained nothing further than a ‘friendship’ during the period,” he said.

“It is considerably more likely than not that there existed a romantic aspect to the relationship at the time of Mr Rohde’s first visit to the Philippines,” he said. “I am … greatly troubled by Mr Rohde’s travel to the Philippines at council expense mere months after his forming a relationship through an online dating platform with a resident of the country.

“… the council appears never to have previously contemplated pursuing a trade relationship with the country.

“Mr Rohde’s omission to declare his relationship with Bita at the time he raised the possibility of his participating in the trade mission was highly inappropriate.

“The relationship and Mr Royde’s intention to meet with Bita should have been declared to the council chief executive officer in the preliminary discussions concerning the proposal. This information should also have been declared to the elected body.”

“Mr Rohde said that he was not obliged to declare these matters to the council. He likened his meeting with Bita in the Philippines to occasions in which he has met with friends or family when undertaking business-related travel.

"I do not accept Mr Rohde’s characterisation of his relationhip with Bita as at April, 2016 … a fair-minded observer might reasonably have concluded that the decision to undertake the trade mission had been influenced by personal, rather than public, interests … that is my suspicion.”

Mr Lines found that Mr Rohde had committed maladministration and misconduct by organising and undertaking a trade mission on behalf of the council in the absence of formal approvals from the elected body.

Mr Rohde visited the Philippines on the trade missions in April and May-June, 2016, at a cost to council of about $4440, comprising airfares, airport parking fees, the cost of shipping council information packs and sample products to Manila and State Development Department fees.

Mr Rohde paid his accommodation, meals and incidentals costs himself out of his own funds. The Ombudsman said this was “unusual”.

The Ombudsman said there was “considerable uncertainty” about how and why the spending was approved in the absence of a decision from the elected body.

He said Mr Rohde’s account of his meeting with then chief executive officer Andrew Johnson had suggested that the “serious” matter was determined by just two council officers “behind closed doors and in a manner that excluded any real public input or scrutiny".

“This approach was all the more unwise because the person who was to receive the benefit of the airfares was one of the two participants to the discussion,” he said. “... such an approach introduced a heightened risk of corruption.”

But he said the council did not commit maladministration by funding the travel in circumstances where formal approval was not followed.

The Recorder sought comment from Mr Rohde and Cr Jackson.