Andrew Forrest's mining company, Fortescue Metals Group (FMG), has been accused of rigging a meeting with Indigenous stakeholders to win the rights to mine more than $100 billion of iron ore.
Lawyer Kerry Savas says a meeting in March last year with Indigenous land owners in the East Pilbara was a sham, and FMG established a group of land owners who would fight to accept its deal.
The Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC) are recognised under Commonwealth Law as the native title holders of the land and they are stridently opposed to the project.
YAC are at odds with another group of land owners, the Wirla-murra, a group Mr Savas says FMG established so the company had a party to deal with.
The meeting held in March last year revealed the bitter divide between YAC and the Wirla-murra, who wanted to accept FMG's $4 million offer, plus jobs, housing and training.
The meeting was ugly and physical, and the Wirla-murra claimed to have won the vote by a show of hands.
It was a big win for FMG, but Mr Savas - a Perth-based lawyer who worked for a legal firm employed by FMG to help the Wirla-murra - says it was all a set up.* "On the face of it, it was an Aboriginal meeting; however, when you look at it closely, it wasn't," he said.
"The table was set by FMG and they had prepared the menu as they wanted it, so they had prepared who the guests were going to be - they wanted to get enough people there to defeat the YAC and they did.
"It is unusual when it is a corporation involved and they want to control the meeting to that extent and to pay fees to people that are voting at a meeting.
"When the outcome of that vote is directly affected to the company, that in itself is very unusual." Mr Savas says the actions undertaken by FMG are illegal.
"Controversial probably isn't the word - the word is illegal," he said.
"The Native Title Act is fairly clear.
It doesn't give terribly many rights to the Aboriginal group, but one thing it affords Aboriginal people is good-faith negotiations.
"And that's not been interpreted to mean awfully much in the courts, but what it does mean is the company should engage the Aboriginal group in a good-faith manner and talk about possible compensation." Heritage sites The Solomon Hub area, and in particular a deposit known as Firetail, is rich with Aboriginal artefacts including rock shelters, burial caves and materials used for initiation ceremonies.
In 2008, the Native Title tribunal accepted sworn evidence from Michael Woodley - the head of YAC - that the Yindjibarndi people had specific cultural connections to the land.
In 2010, FMG commissioned Eurekas, a New South Wales-based archaeology company, to report on the land's Aboriginal sites.
But after submitting its report, the consultant claimed in a letter to the Department of Indigenous Affairs that it had been asked by FMG to remove sections of the report.
"It soon became very clear that, if we did not comply, [FMG] would withhold payment of our previous, outstanding and well overdue invoices on the basis that [FMG] could not be expected to pay for a report that they could not use," the letter said.
"At the time there were a number of invoices that were already overdue for payment, amounting, in Eureka's case, to $70,000." 'Reprehensible' Last year FMG commissioned another report on the heritage values of the Firetail site, which includes Kangeenarina Creek.
But the anthropologist who wrote it, Brad Goodes, said later in a statement provided to 7.30 that FMG did not want the significance of the creek mentioned.
"They provided me with marked up suggested changes and sent it back to me for my acceptance, but I refused to accept their changes regarding the creek," he said.
"They were unhappy about the reference to other Yindjibarndi people possibly having specific mythological knowledge about Kangeenarina Creek and about the proposed 50-metre exclusion zone.
"It was the worst, the most reprehensible experience I've ever had as an anthropologist." Mr Goode says FMG cut his contract when he refused to make the changes.
The miner then got another archaeological firm to study the area.
Company documents show the directors of that firm are the parents of FMG's heritage manager.
FMG's director of development, Peter Meurs, told 7.30 that he rejected accusations that FMG established the Wirlu-murru to derail opposition to the project.
"Fortescue definitely did not set up a rival group to YAC," he said.
"We were approached as Fortescue by other people from the community, particularly the women of the community, that really wanted to work with Fortescue." Mr Meurs said FMG paid for the expenses of people who attended the meeting to ensure "fair representation".
"We didn't exclusively pay people to represent our position.
We offered to pay the expenses of all the people that came to the meeting so that it would be fairly represented and so it could be voted on," he said.
"I feel very confident and really delighted to be associated with a company that pays so much attention to matters that relate to Aboriginal people." 'Amend the Act' Mr Savas says the whole process need to be investigated.
"I think the Federal Government that rightly oversees the Native Title legislation ought to put in place some sort of investigative committee that has the power to gather evidence and examine what has happened here," he said.
"[Firstly], to hopefully to come to the truth and release these Aboriginal groups from FMG's clutches and let them get a decent deal.
"And [secondly] also to possibly amend the Act ...
so future companies like FMG can't do this again.
"In 2012 this shouldn't be happening; this is stuff from a century ago." Despite being mired in legal action, the first shipment of iron ore from the Solomon Hub is expected to be exported by March.
Editor's note (21/12/2012): The ABC understands that Mr Kerry Savas was an employee of the legal firm, Corser and Corser, who represented the Wirlu-Murra group in its negotiations with FMG.Â Mr Savas informs the ABC that Corser and Corser was engaged by FMG to help set up the Wirlu-Murra; and then retained to represent the Wirlu-Murra group in negotiations with FMG; this is disputed by FMG.