Email records refute Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s claims that he and his “team” were unaware of explicit text messages between ousted Blain MLA Mark Turner and his mistress, the NT Independent can reveal.
Mr Gunner issued a statement published in the NT News today in which he claimed his team would have handled the scandal differently if they had been aware of text messages Mr Turner sent his lover before he confessed to the affair on Wednesday night in Parliament.
Mr Gunner’s office was made aware of the messages on Monday afternoon by the NT Independent.
The public statement was issued as Mr Gunner faces serious leadership questions over his handling of the sex scandal engulfing his government.
Mr Gunner claimed in the statement that Mr Turner deceived him and his team by “withholding and denying the existence of text messages he had exchanged with the private citizen” until “shortly before” Mr Turner admitted the affair in Parliament on Wednesday night.
However, the NT Independent can confirm that Mr Gunner’s director of communications Maria Billias was made aware of those text messages and the explicit details at 3:36 pm on Monday, February 15 – more than 48 hours before Mr Turner admitted the affair.
Detailed questions sent to Ms Billias – including Facebook text message extracts between Mr Turner and his mistress, as well as between a fifth floor staffer involved with the same woman, that included sexually explicit comments and multiple discussions of drug use – were provided on Monday, February 15.
The questions were also directly sent to Mr Turner and the senior fifth floor staffer who resigned this week.
The NT Independent offered Ms Billias and the two men an extended deadline for a response should she or they have requested to verify the veracity of the messages.
The entirety of those messages has still not been published.
The Gunner Government has a standing order not to respond to the NT Independent that has been widely condemned by pro-democracy groups across the country and around the world.
Scandal dealt with ‘professionally and appropriately’: Gunner
Mr Gunner said in the NT News statement that he was “satisfied that [the affair] was dealt with professionally and appropriately” by his team.
“Had the two former members of my team been honest and forthcoming earlier, we would have handled this differently and this would have included acting early and publicly,” Mr Gunner stated.
Despite his office being aware of the details of the text messages by the NT Independent the day before parliamentary sittings, Mr Gunner used Parliament to deflect questions about the scandal and demanded Leader of the Opposition Lia Finocchiaro provide “proof” of any illegal activity. It is now clear his staffers were working behind the scenes to offer “advice” to Mr Turner about how to handle the affair at the same time.
Mr Gunner said in the statement that he had personally been made aware of the sex scandal “early in the week of February 8” at which point he said the two Labor Party members concerned had denied their involvement.
Mr Turner was subsequently sacked from the Labor caucus by Mr Gunner on Thursday, after the NT Independent revealed that he appeared to have worked with Labor staffers to coax his lover to recant her story about the affair.
An unidentified Gunner Government “spokesman” – whom the NT News inexplicably chose not to identify – admitted on Saturday that Mr Gunner’s staffers were aware of allegations about Mr Turner and the senior fifth floor staffer on February 2, and had offered communication strategies from that point.
It is unclear whether the “spokesman” was involved in helping Mr Turner and the other staffer because he was not named in the NT News story.
Mr Gunner denied his team had attempted a cover-up.
“In relation to the advice that was offered to the Member for Blain by my team, let me be clear – until late on Wednesday we were treating the Member as the subject of internet gossip and rumour and had no evidence to the contrary,” Mr Gunner said in the statement.
“It was appropriate that we offered him advice on how publicly to handle this.
“At no point, did any member of my team advise the Member for Blain on how to cover-up information. I strongly reject any suggestions to the contrary.”
Mr Gunner’s statement has raised further questions, given that he claimed Mr Turner was offered “advice” until “late on Wednesday”. Texts sent to the woman by Mr Turner persuading her to issue a false statement were sent Wednesday morning, after her appearance on ABC Radio.