EXCLUSIVE: It’s a political scandal crossing party lines rocking Canberra. Caught in between: a young, idealistic adviser sacked by Labor senator, Kristina Keneally, over a text message about a friend’s torrid relationship built on false notions with the former high-profile Liberal MP and billionaire pub baron, Craig Laundy.
But the secret affair has now also sensationally led to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s right-hand man, Yaron Finkelstein, issuing threats of defamation against True Crime News Weekly for daring to report allegations of ‘sexual inappropriateness’ and this very story in the public interest. This investigation by Matilda Duncan.
Late last month, a young Labor staffer, Pierce Field, decided to message one of Australia’s most powerful private citizens in an attempt to start a confidential conversation about a friend of his.
That private citizen was the billionaire pub heir and senior former Liberal Minister, Craig Laundy.
“Hi Craig,” Field wrote on the night of Wednesday, October 20. “My name is Pierce Field. I’d like to talk to you about Natalie Baini as a matter of urgency.”
At the time he sent that text message, Field was employed as an Electorate Officer in the office of Senator Kristina Keneally, the high-profile Labor Senator, Shadow Home Affairs Minister and former Premier of New South Wales. Senator Keneally has recently announced her intention to move to the ouse of Representatives by contesting the seat of Fowler in western Sydney, a move that has sparked criticism within the Labor party for displacing a local lawyer and Vietnamese-Australian candidate, Tu Le.
After sending his message to Laundy at 8:21pm on the night of October 20, Field says he received a call from Laundy about 45 minutes later. During that call, he says, they spoke in a private capacity about the “matters mentioned in the letters from Natalie Baini to Chris Stone.”
The letters referred to by Field are two emails of complaint written by Ms Baini that outline a series of allegations of misconduct against two of the country’s most senior Liberal Party figures, Craig Laundy, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s principal private secretary, Yaron Finkelstein.
Baini sent her complaints to Chris Stone, the State Director of the New South Wales Liberal Party. Bain’s initial letter of complaint was sent to Stone last year on December 1, and a follow-up letter was sent earlier this year, on March 3.
Both letters were labelled as “confidential” and appear to have been intended by Baini to remain as private complaints, to be dealt with internally by the Liberal Party. Copies of Baini’s letters have since been leaked to several national media outlets, including True Crime News Weekly.
Baini’s first email to Stone suggests that she has been waiting more than three-and-a-half years for a response from the Liberal Party to some of her complaints.
The letters contain series of allegations against Laundy, including the allegation that he had deceived Ms Baini about his marital status prior to the two entering into a relationship. Baini alleged that she later experienced retaliation from Laundy that limited her political career.
Laundy’s explanation for his resignation from politics two years ago was that his family had “faced a number of challenges” and that he needed to put his family first.
The letters also detail Baini’s wish to have what she termed “improper” conduct allegedly perpetrated by Finkelstein responded to by the Liberal Party.
The exact dates that the incidents involving Laundy are alleged to have taken place are unclear, but the letter implies they may have occurred sometime in the years prior to 2018. The incidents involving Finkelstein are alleged by Baini to have taken place during the 12 months prior to December 1, 2020.
Ms Baini was unable to be reached for comment by True Crime News Weekly.
Chris Stone and the Liberal Party of NSW were both contacted for comment last week by True Crime News Weekly about Ms Baini’s complaints. A brief response was provided via email on behalf of the Liberal Party of NSW, which the Party stated was not “on-the-record”: “The information you have is incorrect, as the person in question had received a comprehensive response. Due to the confidentiality considerations in this matter, it is not possible to discuss it with you further.”
True Crime News Weekly contacted both Laundy and Finkelstein for comment last week. Both men threatened defamation in response to our queries in regards to this story.
Yaron Finkelstein: PM Scott Morrison’s right-hand man has threatened to sue True Crime News Weekly for publishing this story and any “aspect of the allegations” that he acted in any way sexually inappropriately (Image: LinkedIn / Supplied)
For his part, Finkelstein turned to “one of Australia’s most prominent media lawyers” – John-Paul Cashen from Thomson Geer Lawyers.
On his official work bio on the Thomson Geer Lawyers website, Cashen claims to be all for ‘media freedom’ and the rights of a free media.
“His deep knowledge of the laws they operate under puts him in the right position to be able to defend media outlets and journalists when their right to free speech is challenged,” his bio reads.
Regardless of those lofty stated ideals, Cashen sent messages on behalf of Finkelstein where he threatened to sue the pants off True Crime News Weekly for investigating this story.
“Should you publish any aspect of the allegations that our client acted in any way sexually inappropriately towards Ms Baini, he will immediately issue proceedings for defamation,” Cashen wrote to True Crime News Weekly.
“Our client denies any allegation that he acted in a sexual manner towards Ms Baini, or indeed that he has acted inappropriately in any way in the presence of Ms Baini. Nothing of the sort has occurred. It simply did not happen.
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“Putting to one side the fact that the allegations are so vague and lacking in specificity as to lack any credibility, plainly allegations of that nature are highly defamatory.
“We note that even a publication which only carried an imputation that there are reasonable grounds for investigating allegations of this kind would be unreasonable and indefensible.”
Cashen also then took some time to remind us that Finkelstein has had a “long and distinguished” career in politics and the corporate world.
While also threatening defamation, Laundy and his high-priced PR team meanwhile tried to intimidate True Crime News Weekly by forwarding on our request for comment to an AFP agent for some reason.
“The libelous and defamatory allegations alluded to in your email are not new and are currently the subject of a federal criminal investigation being conducted by the Australian Federal Police (AFP). That investigation precludes me from discussing these matters in detail, but suffice it to say the claims are not anchored in fact,” PR flunky, David Latham from First Tier Media, wrote to True Crime News Weekly on behalf of Laundy.
“Federal Agent Daniel Strenger is assigned to this case. Agent Strenger has asked that he be kept across developments and therefore has been cc’d in this email. I am also cc’ing Mr Laundy’s legal representative, Mark O’Brien, who may be in contact with you regarding the legal ramifications of running unsubstantiated and defamatory rumours.”
On its website, First Tier Media describes itself as a “boutique PR, lobbying, and crisis media agency”.
Field, 32, says that during his call with Laundy, the former federal minister seemed to be under the impression that Field was contacting him as a partisan political operative, rather than on a personal basis.
“At the beginning of the call, Craig bombarded me with facts about my employment [in Keneally’s office],” says Field. “I immediately corrected Craig and stated I was not acting as a Labor staffer or anything to do with the LNP, I was acting as a private citizen helping out my mate.”
The morning after, on Thursday 21, Field sent an additional text to Laundy at 8:52am. “Personally, man to man, I would issue a public apology this morning owning the mess you’ve made.”
“It’s now up to you,” he told Laundy. “People deserve to know the truth and my experience suggests people are more forgiving when they see some type of remorse. Happy to chat.”
Pierce Field: Lost his job as an adviser after being sacked by Labor Senator Kristina Keneally over a text message sent to former high-profile Liberal MP and billionaire pub baron, Craig Laundy (Image: Supplied)
“People deserve to know the truth”: The text messages Pierce Field sent to Craig Laundy (Image: Supplied)
Field met Natalie Baini two years ago, while they were both working in sports administration for the Australian Football League (AFL). They soon struck up a friendship. Ms Baini is currently a Liberal Party member and sports administrator, and a preselection candidate for the electorate of Reid in Sydney’s inner-west.
After learning about aspects of Baini’s personal experiences, Field says he wanted to help. “I could see that Natalie could not be heard [by the Liberal Party],” he says.
As Laundy had left his Government roles over two and half years ago, Field says his intent when contacting Laundy last month was to start a conversation between two private citizens and encourage Laundy to acknowledge Baini’s concerns and potentially make a public apology.
“He’s not a politician now, he’s just a billionaire,” Field says of Laundy. “I wanted to give Craig the opportunity to make it right.”
KENEALLY’S FIELD DAY
Field’s contact with Craig Laundy cost him his job.
Just under 5 hours after sending his last text to Laundy that contained a suggestion of publicly apologising, Field was fired from his Government position via email by his boss, Kristina Keneally. In a termination letter sent on Thursday October 21 at 1:18pm to both Field and Senator Keneally’s Chief of Staff, Chris Owens, Keneally directly cited Field’s communications with Laundy as the reason he was fired.
“I have been made aware today of your involvement in a series of events that has caused a serious and imminent risk to the reputation of my office and position as a Senator in Parliament,” Keneally’s letter reads. “I consider your actions to be serious misconduct in your role as Electorate Officer.”
“This morning I became aware that last night and this morning you have communicated by phone and text message to Mr Craig Laundy,” she continued. “I have seen the text messages sent from your phone to Mr Laundy.”
“In these communications you have made allegations about Mr Laundy and the Member for Reid. You have also made threats to Mr Laundy.”
Field had been working for Keneally since April last year, and says he had received consistent feedback that he was performing well. He has since lodged an unfair dismissal claim with the Fair Work Commission.
“WHY I SPOKE UP“: THE IMPACT ON FIELD
Losing his job has caused unexpected stress for Field. “I’m shocked, I still am,” he says. “I still don’t understand why I can’t even get a phone call out of the Party to speak about this.”
“My dignity and respect was in work, and it was thrust away from me.”
“I don’t think for a second that the actions of Kristina Keneally represent the Labor Party on this issue. My issue is with the Senator, not the Labor Party. I would like an apology from Kristina Keneally.”
Field has already written publicly that the speed with which he was fired after contacting Craig Laundy raises questions about the nature of the discussion that likely took place between Keneally and Laundy. “Now, I’m not sure what Laundy told @KKeneally – but whatever it was – their relationship is strong enough to warrant terminating my employment without hearing from me,” he wrote on Twitter last week.
True Crime News Weekly was threatened by defamation lawyers acting on behalf of Senator Keneally last month, after exclusively breaking the news that her 23-year-old police officer son had fabricated evidence and lied about receiving death threats that resulted in an innocent man being imprisoned.
Contacted for comment by True Crime News Weekly about Field’s employment matter, Keneally’s office did not respond.
Witnessing recent political events also prompted him to act, including “seeing what happened to [Brittany] Higgins and the fights she went through to be heard, and Grace Tame. They are two very public examples of power and privilege trying to crush these women’s stories. If they can summon the courage to do what they have done, after what they have gone through, then I can help this woman [Baini]. I can make a call and try and help her be heard.”
“I’ve been asked so much why I got involved. I will let people decided for themselves after reading the letters. But it’s not easy, and that’s half the problem,” Field continues, “coming from two male-dominated industries [sport and politics] that have notable problems with their treatment of women, it’s honestly on us blokes to stand up and do something, especially the ones in leadership.”
“We all talk so much, but there’s no reform, no action.”
“I need to stress this is bigger than party politics,” Field says. “This is about men in the Liberal Party using their power and privilege to destroy the life of my friend Natalie. Once I heard Natalie’s story, I simply could not walk past it.”
Field doesn’t wish to speak in any detail about the allegations made by Baini in her written complaints made to the New South Wales branch of the Liberal Party—he would prefer Baini to finally have her complaints acknowledged and investigated by the Liberal Party after years of waiting, and that she be given the opportunity to tell her story for herself one day, if she wishes to.
Labor Senator Kristina Keneally: Sacked an adviser over text messages (Image: Wikipedia / Supplied)
Natalie Baini’s first email to Chris Stone suggests that over the space of the past three and a half years, she repeatedly tried to get her complaints of misconduct against Laundy and Finkelstein heard by the Liberal Party.
“In early May 2018, when I raised the Craig Laundy matter with you,” Baini’s letter begins, “I was mistakenly of the belief that action would be taken immediately, as nominations for preselection in Reid were closing.”
“My numerous attempts to follow up on the Party’s course of action have,” she continued, “as you know, been met with silence. Being ignored by the Party, in return for my honesty on a situation that would have damaged the Party, has added further strain to an already difficult situation. Nobody asked if I was ok.”
In her letter, Baini implied that she had become involved in a relationship with Laundy that had taken place prior to his exit from federal politics in 2019, based on an understanding that he had separated from his wife, and that she had later faced retaliation from Laundy as a consequence of that relationship that affected her health and career.
Later in the letter, Baini went on to detail her experiences of what she termed “improper” conduct allegedly perpetrated by one of the Liberal Party’s most senior members, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Chief of Staff, Yaron Finkelstein.
“Unfortunately, it became apparent over time, that the fact that Craig had managed to pull this off as a married man, leaning on poor mental health as the great defence, Yaron also felt he could try the same,” Baini wrote to Stone. “Yaron had been very supportive of my professional career, whether it was seeking a Government appointment or running for preselection at the next election in Reid.”
“However,” she continued, “after two visits to my home, where he behaved extremely inappropriately in what can only be described as a ‘sexual’ manner, I understand that he has changed his mind. On each occasion, my vulnerability in relation to what Craig and his family had been doing to me was abundantly clear. I am not suggesting that Yaron’s actions constituted ‘assaults’, but I would characterise them as highly improper.”
Later in her letter, Ms Baini explained that she had previously considered Finkelstein one of her “oldest and dearest friends in the Party”, and had patiently tried to resolve her complaints with him privately over the space of a year, to no avail. “I have spent at least 12 months trying to obtain some sort of apology or explanation from Yaron for his behaviour. I have tried to do this in as friendly a way as possible.”
“I am very aware of what the despicable behaviour of men in our Party has cost me … I would have preferred to have kept this issue private, as, yet again, I seem to have the greater concern for the other person’s children. Unfortunately, on each occasion, other people have converted their own inappropriate conduct into roadblocks for my progression in the Party. It has not been my choice to make otherwise personal matters, political, but if others wish to make matters political, then I have no choice.”
“Despite my extensive list of qualifications, my capability to serve, and my absolute and ongoing dedication to my local community, I know that my political future is now non-existent … I am available to speak to anyone who requires further information.”
Baini then requested that the Liberal Party respond to her concerns and take “immediate action”.
According to her next letter, she did not receive a response.
Four months later, Ms Baini followed up on her initial complaint with another email to Chris Stone.
“I refer to my email below of 1 December 2020. I have not received a response to that correspondence. I note that the Code of Conduct was announced yesterday and is immediately enforceable.”
Baini provided additional information about her complaints, alleging that Laundy had deceived her about his marital status prior to her becoming involved in a relationship with him. “I am unsure if the Party’s panel can hear a matter where consent was provided to someone based on him lying about his marital status,” Baini wrote. “Given that I had rejected Craig on a prior occasion and explained that I had no interest in being with a married man, his decision to lie was very calculated. It was certainly not ‘informed consent’ that I provided. Given Craig’s position, there is a level of seriousness to this matter which I believe has been overlooked.”
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Baini went on to explain her interactions with Craig had had severe impacts on her safety and family. “I have, on more than one occasion, had to refer matters to the NSW Police due to serious threats to the safety of myself and my family,” she wrote. “The Liberal Party is yet to take any disciplinary action against Craig. Given the trauma that I sustain to this day, I do not see the Craig Laundy matter as historical.”
Later in the letter, Baini alleged that Laundy had retaliated against her during the lead-up to the last federal election and limited her political career as a consequence of their relationship.
Craig Laundy: Alleged to have deceived Natalie Baini about his marital status prior to the two entering into a relationship. Baini alleged that she later experienced retaliation from Laundy that limited her political career (Image: Wikipedia / Supplied)
Baini wrote that in 2018, she had intended to run for preselection in the seat of Reid, which Laundy held for six years from 2013 onwards. “It is only in the past few weeks that members in Reid have become aware that I sought Craig’s endorsement to run for Reid at the last election,” she wrote. “They are aware of the grounds on which it was denied. I take issue with the fact that my refusal to be with a married man cost me the opportunity to run. A preselection process would have provided a fair solution at the time.”
After Laundy’s delayed resignation from politics in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election, the Liberal Party had a troubled search for a candidate in Reid. With just six weeks left in the leadup to the election, Laundy inexplicably endorsed the current Member for Reid, Fiona Martin, for the seat and contributed $100,000 of his own money to her campaign. While campaigning in Reid in April 2019, John Howard admitted he had never previously met Martin. In her letter, Baini suggests that Martin and Laundy were on very friendly terms and well-known to each other.
“Yes, my experiences in the Party would induce other women to leave,” Baini wrote, “however, that is not my intention.”
Baini again requested action from the Liberal Party, before suggesting she would “pursue the internal panel process that is now available and refer the relevant matters to the AFP next week for investigation.”
As evidenced by her letters to Stone, Ms Baini has been seeking to resolve her complaints privately with the Liberal Party. She is yet to speak publicly about her experiences.
Since contacting Craig Laundy in his attempts to assist Ms Baini, Pierce Field has been living with the threat of an Australian Federal Police investigation over his head.
Last month, Murdoch’s News Corp reported that Keneally had “been forced” to fire Field and that Field’s texts to Laundy had been “referred to police for consideration in an ongoing Australian Federal Police investigation”, without any information on the type of alleged criminality the “ongoing investigation” supposedly concerned.
In the same article from October 22, News Corp published the claim that “The Australian Federal Police are investigating these claims as to whether or not they have involved the use of a carriage service to menace and harass the serving MP and the former MP.”
True Crime News Weekly contacted the Australian Federal Police for comment last week, and asked if any investigations involving Field or Laundy were active, or had been recently concluded. The AFP were also asked if Maiden’s reporting for News Corp had been accurate, and if the AFP had received any contact from News Corp or provided any statements to News Corp for Maiden’s article.
In answer to all questions,a spokesperson for the Australian Federal Police said only: “The AFP does not confirm or deny who it is investigating”.
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Contacted for comment by True Crime News Weekly, Samantha Maiden declined to confirm whether she had actually sighted any evidence or received confirmations of investigations from the Australian Federal Police before writing her article.
“I read about the AFP involvement in the media,” Field says. “I called them [the AFP] and asked if there was any investigation, and I was told [by an AFP staffer] “if you were under investigation or been charged, you would know by now.””
Field’s texts to Laundy have been in the public domain for several weeks. “Anyone can read them,” says Field. “I don’t understand what is threatening about them.”
The Murdoch-owned media outlets that covered Field’s employment dispute with Kristina Keneally’s office chose to dedicate the majority of their articles to his texts with Craig Laundy, rather than provide the public with information about the allegations against senior Liberal Party figures made by Ms Baini that initially prompted Field to contact Laundy.
In the same article in which she made her questionable claims about the Australian Federal Police, Samantha Maiden attempted to discredit Ms Baini’s efforts to have her story heard, characterising Baini’s written complaints of serious allegations of misconduct to the Liberal Party as a “campaign”.
“But the woman has continued to ask the Liberal Party to investigate the matter, a campaign that has recently included writing letters to the Liberal Party’s federal executive and the state branch”, Maiden wrote, calling the surrounding context of the story a “bizarre saga”.
Maiden has garnered journalistic acclaim recently for being the first to report on the Brittany Higgins story, and has since won a book contract promising to “deliver fresh revelations about the toxic culture inside both the major political parties” in Canberra, and an OurWatch award for “excellence in the reporting of violence against women and children” for her reporting on the Higgins case.
WATCH FRIENDLYJORDIES DISCUSS POLITICAL SCANDAL
Despite being aware of Ms Baini’s complaints, Maiden didn’t make space for her side of the story to be heard in her article. “News.com.au understands that the former politician says the allegations referred to in the texts that he had an extramarital affair with another MP are “completely untrue”.
Maiden then reported that Baini’s complaints had been investigated by the Liberal Party, relegating what should have been a story of national significance to a sentence buried at the end of her article. “Liberal Party sources say the matter [Baini’s complaints] was investigated at the time,” was all Maiden wrote.
Despite having reported that a significant investigation into misconduct had supposedly taken place within the Liberal Party as recently as last year, Maiden provided no further information about that investigation or her sourcing. Maiden did not report the outcome of the supposed Liberal Party “investigation”, what formal processes that investigation had involved, and exactly when it had taken place.
Maiden was contacted for comment by True Crime News Weekly last week about the various claims and omissions of significant information regarding Ms Baini within her article. Asked about her failure to report accurately on a Liberal Party misconduct investigation and her decision to characterise Baini’s complaints to the Liberal Party as a “campaign” without giving Baini a voice, Maiden did not respond.
It may be safe to say though that unlike True Crime News Weekly, Maiden and News Corp didn’t receive threats of defamation from the reputable likes of Finkelstein and Laundy for their so-called reporting.