[JURIST] Australian Prime Minister John Howard [official profile] testified [transcript, PDF] Thursday before a government commission and said that he had not seen several cables [press conference, text] sent to his office which were meant to warn the Australian government that the country's leading wheat exporter was paying kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's former regime [JURIST report] between 1997 and 2003. In a written statement [JURIST report] released by Howard, he said that approximately 68,000 cables come into his office each year, and that his four senior advisors probably did not believe the allegations against the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) [corporate website] were important enough to bring to his attention because the government believed the AWB had a very good reputation at the time. The AWB is accused of paying $220 million to Hussein's government in order to receive grain contracts worth $2.3 billion under the UN's now-defunct oil-for-food program [JURIST news archive].
Howard's testimony follows that of Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer [official website] and Trade Minister Mark Vaile [official website] earlier this week, both of whom also denied seeing or reading the cables [JURIST report]. The ministers were called for questioning because evidence that the government was aware of the alleged kickbacks could be a defense for AWB executives if they are found to have participated in the scandal. Meanwhile, more than 20 lawyers and academic scholars sent a letter [ABC report] to the Australian Attorney-General [official website] calling on the Cole Commission [official website] to also open the inquiry into investigating possible corruption by the government. AP has more.