Luke Sayers faces heat over PwC ‘whistleblower’ complaint

09 February 2024 4 min. read
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Former PwC boss Luke Sayers has been arguably the star attraction of the endless Senate inquiries into the consulting sector, bringing a certain impish charm to proceedings while his contemporaries wilt under the spotlight. He is also responsible for the bombshell that PwC had previously explored severing its consulting wing, and that former finance minister Mathias Cormann was a whisker away from becoming a partner in Sayers.

Already thrown under the bus in the Switkowski report into the firm’s governance and culture commissioned in the wake of PwC’s government tax breach scandal, Sayers now faces additional heat, presently subject to an internal ethics probe following a conflict of interest complaint lodged by a company ‘whistleblower’.

The investigation comes as Sayers publicly bids to extend his tenure as Carlton Football Club president beyond ordinary term limits.

According to reports, the PwC ‘employee’ has alleged that Sayers improperly wielded his influence while CEO for personal gain, although the details as laid out are a bit unclear on the central basis of the complaint and if any genuine wrongdoing might have occurred beyond the usual affairs and high-level networking of business and politics.

It stems from the suggestion that Sayers had breached protocol in ensuring the firm’s travel account went to a subsidiary of Helloworld.

From there, Sayers is said to have used the connection to the travel agency’s CEO Andrew Burnes – at the time treasurer of the Liberal Party – to gain access to Cormann and fellow minister and federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg. As PwC had already been Helloworld’s long-time auditor, the suggestion seems to be that delivering the travel account to Helloworld was a dodgy back-scratching exercise, which occurred during a period of rocketing government spending on advisory.

From this limited vantage, it also seems the spotlight should be more squarely focused on the Liberal Party. Albeit highly unethical from a public standpoint, it’s one thing for businesses to buy access to politicians – see here for the latest in Big Four party donations – which Sayers might have been expected to do in his capacity as chief, and altogether another thing for politicians to outright sell it – see here for the allegations against yet another Liberal minister Stuart Roberts.

However, the complaint goes on to outline how Sayers may have personally benefited from his actions, claiming that Burnes later became an investor in Sayers’ eponymous consultancy launched in 2020. Helloworld, which included another former treasurer in Joe Hockey as a major shareholder, also signed on as the travel sponsor of Carlton, and donated to the charity led by Sayers’ wife Cate, who was then called out for endorsing Frydenberg, the CFC’s No. 1 ticket holder.

Welcome to the icky world of business and politics, which on the surface reached its nadir under the Liberal government. Helloworld won a $1 billion contract extension from that government in 2017, from the finance department to be precise. Meanwhile, Burnes was on the board of Tourism Australia at the time ‘Sco-Mo’ was managing director (since curiously shy about his time at KPMG), alongside former KPMG NSW managing partner Tony Clark. The list goes on.

Amusingly (for those not involved), the Murdoch papers – goaded on by members of the Victorian Liberal opposition and tapping into fringe far-right conspiracies – targeted long-serving premier Dan Andrew’s close relationship with ‘frenemy’ Sayers as a line of attack against Labor in the most recent state election. The take-home message; you don’t make it to the top while playing both sides of the fence without ruffling some feathers along the way.

According to an email to the whistleblower seen by the AFR, PwC’s ‘ethics leader’ Valerie Clifford confirmed that an investigation into Sayers’ past conduct was now underway. Notably, the consulting industry’s chief senate prosecutors Deborah O’Neill and Barbara Pocock were cc’d a copy of the complaint, eliciting a predictable response. Whether a timely plant (CFC), move to scapegoat (PwC), attempt at corporate sabotage (tender competitors), or simply a noble act, we may never know.