Lehrmann case to reopen to test drugs and other claims

Broadcaster Seven Network allegedly reimbursed Bruce Lehrmann for money spent on illicit drugs and sex workers as it tried to recruit him for a tell-all interview.

The claims made by former Seven producer Taylor Auerbach - and contested by the broadcaster - led to a judge agreeing to reopen Lehrmann's defamation case against Network Ten before a judgment was due to be delivered.

The 28-year-old ex-Liberal staffer is suing Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson over a February 2021 report on The Project during which fellow staffer Brittany Higgins claimed he raped her in a Parliament House office in 2019.

In three affidavits filed with the Federal Court, Mr Auerbach alleged Lehrmann leaked private and confidential texts from Ms Higgins, sending them to Seven ahead of an exclusive interview on its Spotlight program in August 2023.

On Tuesday evening, the court heard the texts were provided to Seven in breach of an implied undertaking, which holds that untendered evidence from an abandoned criminal case can't be used for other purposes.

Bruce Lehrmann (file image)
Bruce Lehrmann has denied leaking confidential information.

Lehrmann previously denied in court providing any material to Seven other than his recorded interview.

But the fresh allegations amounted to "an egregious contempt of court", Ten's barrister Matt Collins KC said in written submissions to the court.

Had the information, including undisclosed benefits, been known earlier it could have formed the basis of Ten applying to have the entire Lehrmann case thrown out, Dr Collins said.

In his untested affidavit, Mr Auerbach alleges Seven bankrolled a lavish lifestyle for Mr Lehrmann in the lead-up to his explosive interview, including flights, a golf excursion to Tasmania and more than $10,000 spent on a Sydney Thai massage.

One of several lavish meals involved Lehrmann and three others sharing a $361 tomahawk steak and another $140 in food at a high-end Sydney restaurant in January 2023.

Earlier that month, Seven reimbursed Lehrmann for more unconventional expenses, Mr Auerbach claimed.

"I recall that monies paid by (Lehrmann) for illicit drugs and prostitutes that evening at the Meriton and the following evening at a brothel in Surry Hills were reimbursed to (Lehrmann) by Seven," he said in his affidavit.

Mr Auerbach later left Seven to work as an investigations producer at Sky News.

He said he was fired from Sky in March following media reports about an alleged $1000 payment made by Seven to Lehrmann for the Thai massage.

Mr Auerbach has threatened to sue Lehrmann for defamation over comments that he was a "disgruntled" employee, and Seven for public statements that he was disciplined for misusing a company credit card.

Seven said in a statement it strongly denied Mr Auerbach's "false and misleading claims".

The network said it would never reveal its sources, noting Lehrmann's prior denials that he leaked the texts.

"Furthermore, Seven did not condone or authorise the alleged payments to Mr Lehrmann referred to in the affidavits," a Seven spokesman said. 

"The person involved admitted to the misuse of a Seven corporate card and all unauthorised expenses were immediately reimbursed."

On Tuesday night, Justice Michael Lee accepted Ten's last-minute bid to admit fresh evidence, saying it could change the determination of the case.

Matthew Collins KC and Network Ten lawyers
Network Ten's lawyers successfully argued to reopen the case.

The reopening of the case means the parties will return to court on Thursday to hear from Mr Auerbach and Seven's lawyers.

Justice Lee said he remained hopeful of delivering his judgment next week but would confirm the timing on Monday.

The last-minute hearing came after Ten filed its bid to reopen the case on Easter Sunday.

Lehrmann has settled separate defamation cases with news.com.au and the ABC over their coverage of Ms Higgins' allegations, receiving $445,000 in legal costs under the agreements.

The criminal case was derailed due to juror misconduct, with prosecutors dropping the charge over fears for Ms Higgins' health.

Lehrmann has always denied any wrongdoing.

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