Anne DaviesFri, 19 February 2021, 7:31 am
A senior staff member in Liberal MP Craig Kelly’s office continues to work in his role despite multiple young women – some as young as 16 – coming forward to NSW police to allege inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, including an instance of unwanted touching, and despite an apprehended violence order being granted in one case.
In September last year police from Sutherland, in Sydney’s southern suburbs, successfully sought an AVO against Kelly’s longtime office manager, Frank Zumbo, whose job included hiring and managing interns and work experience staff.
The proceedings were reported in the local St George Shire Standard in July and September last year and Guardian Australia understands they relate to claims that Zumbo kissed a 16- or 17-year-old intern on the neck.
But despite police successfully obtaining an AVO to protect the intern from alleged workplace misconduct and confirming to the court that a criminal investigation was under way, Zumbo remains in his role.
Since the media reports, at least six women have come forward to police with complaints about inappropriate behaviour. No charges have yet been laid.
The new revelations come as the Liberal party faces sustained questions about its culture and the workplace environment it provides for young female staff.
It follows unrelated claims by Brittany Higgins that she was raped by a colleague in the offices of the defence minister in 2019 just before the election and that she felt she was told a police report would affect her future employment as a staffer. To be clear, there are no allegations of rape against Zumbo.
When approached by the Guardian, Kelly said he was “unaware” there were multiple women who had gone to police with complaints of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. He said he was aware of the AVO and the criminal investigation and its nature. He said Zumbo “was entitled to the presumption of innocence”. He confirmed he continues to employ Zumbo.
The Guardian has seen evidence that senior Liberals were aware of similar allegations stretching back several years. Despite being raised by Kelly’s former staff in 2014 and again during torrid preselection tussles in Hughes in 2016 and 2018, the alleged behaviour appears to have continued.
The numerous complaints raise questions about the culture the Liberal party tolerates within political offices and whether the party has turned a blind eye to serious potential issues of workplace safety and misconduct.
The Guardian has spoken to a number of young women who worked in Kelly’s Hughes electorate office.
When Ella (not her real name) was 16 she began working as an intern at the offices in Sutherland.
Ella’s mother, had sought assistance from Kelly’s office in early 2018 about a visa issue. She was referred to Zumbo.
Zumbo, a former associate professor of law at the University of NSW is in his mid-50s and is Kelly’s right-hand man, or as Kelly describes him, the office manager.
He has been with Kelly for nearly a decade, although until around 2015, he was not officially on staff and worked as a volunteer.
In the course of a conversation with Zumbo in 2018, Ella’s mother talked about her talented daughter, prompting Zumbo to suggest an internship.
After a meeting with Zumbo, Ella began work that week.
“He said he would give me a foot in the door into politics. I am interested in politics but our views on politics were very different,” Ella told the Guardian.
She found herself working with about 10 young women and girls, some of whom were still at school.
“They came and went. It was canvassing and writing birthday letters for 85-year-old constituents,” she said.
“From the very first interview he hugged me and kissed me and he continued to do this each day I came to the office to the point that it became an unquestioned part of the workplace culture,” Ella said.
“It was unquestioned that you had to hug and kiss him when you arrived and left. There was no choice in that,” she said.
“Then it got more intense when he wanted to take me out. He simply stated he was going to take me out and then moved straight to setting a date. He was very insistent.
“He would have one-on-one chats with you behind closed doors, just you and him. He often sounded really paranoid, saying things like: ‘past sisters have betrayed me.’ It was really intense. I was 16 and 17 when working there.”
“He would end up talking about really personal things my mum had told him about our personal life when she was seeking help. It was really uncomfortable.”
Eventually Ella agreed to go out with him but she says it was with reluctance.
“I put him off several times but it was difficult. By July I agreed. He picked me up at 9am on a Saturday and dropped me home at 5pm. We went to what he called ‘the lefty belt’. We went to some inner west markets. He kept trying to buy me clothes. I never let him, but he did buy me books. ”
Despite saying no to clothes, Ella says Zumbo took her to a factory outlet on the way home, which only sold clothes. “He kept offering different things to try on,” she said.
At one stage during the car trip Ella alleges he put his hand on her leg. She says it was for about three seconds and he did it as if he was joking with her, shaking her thigh. “I didn’t say anything. I was in a moment of shock,” she said. “I was in a car alone with him and I thought he could take me anywhere.” She has now made a statement to police.
When approached by the Guardian about numerous allegations of inappropriate workplace behaviour Zumbo told the Guardian: “Given that the matters are before the courts, it would be inappropriate to respond to your questions.” He referred questions to his lawyers.
The Guardian also spoke to another young woman who worked in Kelly’s office and her father, who joined the Hughes branch of the Liberal party in about June 2013. The young woman who was 16, was soon reporting to her father that she found Zumbo’s actions toward her “really creepy”. She was in year 11 at the time.
The daughter, who did not wish to be named, spoke about how uncomfortable she was about Zumbo’s behaviour.
She said she was part of a group of three girls who would go out and hand out campaign leaflets for the 2013 election.
Zumbo would drive them to their assignment.
“He would talk about sexual things with us – like whether we had a boyfriend and whether we had advanced with them. The other girls were older – probably in their 20s. It was very uncomfortable.”
“At the office he would sit with us in a separate room. He would sit with his legs apart, and sometimes touch himself, as if he was adjusting his trousers,” she said.
She told her parents about her discomfort when in his proximity. Her father suggested he may have been “trying to crack on to you” but neither of them thought to go to the police.
At some point during her internship, which ended in 2014, the father and daughter took a trip to Canberra because the daughter was doing some research for Kelly.
The daughter alleges Zumbo asked her out to dinner to thank her for her work. She thought he meant her and her father, but she says Zumbo made it clear that the invitation was for her only. She refused. The father has a similar recollection.
Within a few months, the father decided to leave the Liberal party. He told the Guardian it was mainly because of Zumbo. He had become concerned that Zumbo was also doing work for Labor politicians while working for Kelly and he was concerned about the behaviour toward his daughter.
“The whole reason we never said anything is that this party [the Liberal party] is bigger than us and they could make our lives difficult,” the daughter said about why she never spoke up about the culture in Kelly’s office.
Now 24, she has given an interview to police in the current investigation.
Another young woman, who is now 17, said she met Zumbo in 2019 when she was working at a local cafe. In September 2019 she joined in with a local group performing there and sang one song. Zumbo, who was friends with the singers, was effusive about her talents and the local cafe owner called the girl’s mother to ask her to come and meet Zumbo.
According to the mother, who cannot be named for legal reasons, Zumbo said he wanted to organise an under-18s open-mic night and have the then-16 year old perform.
“He also offered her a job in the office and said he would make her a star,” the mother said.
“She had no office experience,” she said.
The daughter was excited about the open-mic night and corresponded with Zumbo via Instagram. But then Zumbo began commenting on her posts using an emoji with heart eyes. The Guardian has seen the posts. He then allegedly rang the daughter twice to compliment her on her year 10 formal dress when she posted photos.
“I felt really uncomfortable about the approaches,” her mother said. “I rang the cafe owner and said how uncomfortable I was and I didn’t want [the daughter] taking part in anything with Frank Zumbo.”
“We had an open-mic night at the cafe ourselves. After that myself and the cafe owner were blocked from Zumbo’s Facebook page.”
The Guardian has been told that several other young women have made statements to Sutherland police.
In his court appearances, Zumbo has strenuously denied all allegations of misconduct in the AVO hearings.
Michael Moussa, principal at National Criminal Lawyers, said the allegation behind the AVO proceedings against his client was denied and would be vigorously defended.
The AVO proceedings will be before Sutherland local court again in June.
“I am aware that other women have come forward but we are dealing with an investigation that has been running for a considerable period,” Moussa said.
“Why has the police taken so long if it has a prima facie case,” he said, noting that it had been 10 months since the first report of the AVO had been generated.
He said subpoenas to the police had generated “nothing of substance”.
Complaints have been made to Kelly and to senior members of the Liberal party about Zumbo’s alleged inappropriate workplace conduct as early as 2015. Around this time, two women in their 50s who worked in Kelly’s office took stress leave from the office, alleging bullying by Zumbo and one brought a successful action for workers’ compensation.
They both told the Guardian they had raised their concerns about what they had witnessed of Zumbo’s interactions with young women with Kelly and one says she raised it with Malcolm Turnbull’s office.
The allegations of inappropriate behaviour by Zumbo in Kelly’s office also surfaced when he faced potential preselection challenges in 2016 and again in late 2018.
In December 2018, Kelly was facing defeat by local councillor Kent Johns, a moderate-aligned former vice-president of the NSW branch of the Liberal party who had the numbers to win the nomination for Hughes.
The moderate leadership, under pressure from the prime minister, Scott Morrison, decided to support Kelly.
In an email to moderate power brokers Sally Betts, a Waverley councillor, and Trent Zimmerman, the federal MP for North Sydney, Johns made numerous allegations about problems within Kelly’s office.
“What disgusts me more than anything is that we are all [aware] of what is said to be occurring in Craig’s office irrespective of him tearing down the party, climate change denial and attacking marriage recognition.
“The treatment of young woman in his office over the last six years was made aware to all from the prime minister down. The behaviour you walk past is the behaviour you accept,” Johns wrote at the time.
The reference to the prime minister in the email was likely a reference to a complaint made by one of the senior staff to Malcolm Turnbull’s chief of staff, Sally Cray, in 2014 or 2015.
The complaint was not progressed because Zumbo was a volunteer on Kelly’s staff at the time and not covered by the Members of Parliament Staff Act, which triggers a complaints process administered by the Department of Finance.
Johns continued: “We, as moderates, have accepted Craig Kelly as acceptable. I have not and will not while what occurs in that office continues.
“This was never about political ambition this was about fixing the office in Hughes and our faction failed.
“Even if, as moderates, we don’t stand for anything philosophically any more, you might have thought we had a moral spine.”
The Guardian has now learned the email went to a large number of senior Liberal party members, including members of the state executive, the governing body of the party. Johns himself was a vice president of the Liberal party at the time.
Recipients included virtually all the power brokers in the NSW moderate faction and the former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who at the time was urging Morrison to drop Kelly as the candidate for Hughes.
Other recipients included federal MP for North Sydney Trent Zimmerman; NSW environment minister Matt Kean; former NSW MP – now lobbyist – Michael Photios; former federal MP Bruce Baird; senator Andrew Bragg; NSW upper house MP Natalie Ward; and state executive members Chris Rath, Sally Betts and Harry Stutchbury, who now works on David Sharma’s staff.
Morrison, who holds the adjoining southern Sydney seat of Cook, supported Kelly in the factional power play. The Sydney Morning Herald reported he had personally telephoned Betts to lobby her over his fear that Kelly would quit the Liberal party and move to the crossbench had he lost preselection.
When contacted by the Guardian, Craig Kelly said he was aware of the AVO granted in September and that a police investigation into Zumbo had begun in April last year.
He said he was aware of the nature of the initial complaint, but he said: “Frank told me it was a kiss on the cheek not the neck,” adding that Zumbo was Italian and that was how they greet people.
Kelly agreed that the complainant, who no longer works for him was under 18 and an intern in his office.
He said he was not aware of other former staff having complained about alleged inappropriate behaviour to police.
When the Guardian put numerous other allegations to Kelly, including that Zumbo had asked young women to meet him outside office hours, Kelly said he was not aware of any allegation beyond the allegation that had sparked the AVO.
Following publication of the allegations, Kelly strongly denied that he ran an unsafe workplace and said that he had received no complaints from any of the interns over the years.
He said he had talked to Zumbo about the Guardian’s allegations and believed Zumbo had done nothing wrong. “Everything depends on circumstances,” he said.
He said he had not attempted to talk to any of his former interns.
Kelly said Zumbo had taken Ella to the inner west on a Saturday on her own because he realised she was politically unsuited to Kelly’s office and he wanted to find her a position in the office of Jamie Parker, of the Greens, which is located in Glebe. Zumbo apparently had worked with Parker opposing a Woolworths development in Annandale.
However, Ella remained employed at Kelly’s office for the duration of her internship.
Kelly said he considered that it was appropriate for a 55 year old man to take a 16 employee out “because Zumbo was friends with the girl’s godmother and knew the mother.”
Kelly said Zumbo had only offered to buy her second hand books and clothes at the markets worth a few dollars.
Kelly also said that Zumbo denied being in Canberra in 2013, though Kelly recalled the father and daughter coming to Canberra on a visit around this time.
The Guardian approached the prime minister’s office and the Liberal party over the last three days to respond to the serious allegations about the workplace culture in Zumbo’s office and specifically about what steps have been taken in response to the AVO and the police investigation.
As the member for the adjoining seat, it is extremely unlikely that Morrison’s office was not aware of the AVO proceedings, which were reported in the local press and have been widely discussed among Liberals in the Shire.
The Guardian has also asked the prime minister what he knew about Kelly’s office when he pushed for Kelly to stay as the MP for Hughes in 2018.
A spokesman for the Liberal party said there had been issues raised with head office about Zumbo yelling at staff and constituents but said there was no record of a complaint about inappropriate behaviour.
“The NSW Liberal party said it had no record of any complaint or evidence of the allegations raised by the Guardian,” the spokesperson said.