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Queensland cotton irrigator charged over $20m Murray-Darling funding fraud

A Queensland cotton irrigator has been arrested over an alleged $20 million scam involving federal funds designated for Murray-Darling water efficiency projects.

Norman Farming CEO John Norman was charged on 28 August with six counts of aggravated fraud and six counts of fraudulently producing or using a false record.

It is alleged that Norman submitted fraudulent claims, including falsified invoices, relating to six water efficiency projects as part of the Queensland Government’s Healthy HeadWaters scheme between 2010 and 2017.

His chief financial officer, Stephen Evans, was also charged with four counts of fraud for allegedly helping to lodge the claims after he started working for Norman’s business in 2013.

The Healthy HeadWaters program was established to help Queensland’s Murray-Darling Basin irrigators deal with climate change and reduced water availability. It provides funding for irrigators to undertake on-farm infrastructure projects to increase water use efficiency. The projects must relate to water storage, distribution or in-field systems.

Norman reportedly received up to $31 million in grants under the Healthy HeadWaters scheme between 2010 and 2017.

Detective Inspector Mick Dowie said it took the rural arm of the major and organised crime squad more than a year to unravel the sophisticated scam.

He said police had to comb through thousands of modified and false documents and call in forensic accountants as part of the investigation.

"There has obviously been a significant amount of documentation that's had to be analysed, and the offences particularly relate to the modification of invoices from contractors or service providers to the farming community," Dowie said.

“We’ll allege claims were made or invoices were modified that were actually for farming, as opposed to doing the work, and that they were modified to suit the needs of the claim.”

Police raided Norman Farming last October after a long covert operation. At the time, the ABC’s Lateline program reported local farmers’ concerns that the Healthy HeadWaters scheme had failed because there was no checking of  projects during or after completion.

Norman and Evans will reappear in court on 15 October.