Frank Zumbo recounts that a cultural misunderstanding in court led him to demand a “thank you kiss” in exchange for a gift

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Photo: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Frank Zumbo told a court it was confusion and a cultural misunderstanding that led him to demand a hug and a “thank you kiss” from a young employee to whom he had given an envelope full of cash as a birthday present.

Zumbo and the woman who worked in the office of then-Federal Rep. Craig Kelly were alone in a car in a parking lot under the Tom Uglys Bridge late one night after dinner.

The alleged victim has accused Zumbo of inappropriately touching her on numerous occasions, including squeezing her thigh, and regularly hugging her and kissing her cheek against her will.

Zumbo, 55, has pleaded not guilty to 20 charges, including sexual touching and indecent assault, related to allegations by five women between 2014 and 2020. Zumbo was the clerk of Kelly, the Liberal Party member for the Hughes constituency in south Sydney, at the time of the alleged offences.

In Zumbo’s main evidence at Downing Center Magistrates’ Court in Sydney, he told the court the car park incident stemmed from his confusion at the alleged victim’s lack of reciprocity – who cannot legally be named – after he gave her “cash or a cash equivalent gift card” in an envelope as a birthday present.

Related: ‘I had great respect’: Frank Zumbo says in court he never kissed women against their will in the MP’s office

The woman was a Zumbo student at a university before he got her a job at Kelly’s voting office in south Sydney.

After a dinner to mark the alleged victim’s birthday, Zumbo was driving her home as they took a detour to a car park under Tom Uglys Bridge in Blakehurst “because I wanted to give her a birthday present and have a quick chat with her”.

Asked in court why he didn’t drive the woman straight home and give her the gift at her house, Zumbo told the court it was because of the street she lived on.

“If we sat for a long time, any neighbor would see her in the car, or her mother might notice the car and think something was wrong.”

In the parking lot, Zumbo said he handed her the envelope, wished her a happy birthday, and leaned in to kiss the woman on the cheek. When she pulled away, he demanded of her, “Don’t I get a kiss of thanks?”

He told the court Friday he was puzzled by the alleged victim’s lack of reciprocity.

“I asked her for a kiss and a hug. I was trying to understand why she didn’t give me a kiss or a hug as a thank you for the gift.”

Sydney-born Zumbo said his Italian heritage made him a loving, tactile person.

“In my culture, there’s an understanding that you give someone a gift and they say thank you with a kiss on the cheek.

“At that point I couldn’t understand why. I was just confused at that point.”

The court was previously shown recordings of a subsequent conversation between the alleged victim and Zumbo, during which they discussed the incident in the car.

In the recording, Zumbo told the alleged victim she was “very selfish” and “egocentric” for refusing to give him “a little thank you kiss.”

In the alleged victim’s testimony in court last year, she said Zumbo asked her to kiss him on the lips as an expression of gratitude for the gift. He denied that in court on Friday.

The alleged victim testified that after refusing to kiss Zumbo on the lips, she said she would rather return the gift cards. She said Zumbo then asked her for a kiss on the cheek instead – which she also declined.

She then started crying, but Zumbo continued to demand the return of the gift cards, including the hug, the court heard.

The woman said after negotiating a gesture for an hour, she agreed to have Zumbo hug her from the driver’s seat and hold her for a few minutes while she sat there with her arms by her side.

Related: Craig Kelly’s former co-worker says Frank Zumbo “killed her with life” in court.

In court Friday, Zumbo agreed they had reached “a compromise,” but testified that the physical contact was not for minutes: “It was just a quick hug, it was just a token hug.”

Zumbo denied ever inappropriately touching or kissing any of the young women – whom he collectively called “the sisters” – while employed in Kelly’s office.

He also denied allegations that he exposed his penis to a woman he employed late at night in a park in Willoughby after he was again diverted home by a lift.

During his cross-examination Friday afternoon, Zumbo said several of the women who made allegations against him were “liars” who were “double-tongued.” He accused some of “drinking too much”.

He told the court he was “bitterly disappointed” in his accusers, in whose political careers he had invested a great deal of time and effort.

“The betrayal intensified and grew the more I trusted them,” he said.

The trial before Judge Gareth Christofi has been adjourned to a September date. Zumbo’s bail continued.

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