The Australian Wheat Board (AWB) share price is in freefall after a week of hearings into its payment of AUS$290m (US$217.53m) in alleged kickbacks to Iraq under the Oil for Food programme.

The enquiry, headed by Royal Commissioner Terence Cole QC, began in Sydney on 16 January and AWB shares fell to $5.10 by close of trade on 23 January.

Before the enquiry shares had been $6.18 on the back of a stellar $191m profit announcement – up $60m.

With the hearing continuing this week, and little done by the AWB to rebuff allegations, nervous investors are deserting the company.

AWB staff have denied all knowledge that the money, paid to a Jordanian trucking company for inflated freight charges, was skimmed off to the Iraqi government. The UN uncovered the payments.

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Documents have been tabled showing senior AWB staff endorsed the abuse.
AWB was first to recommence wheat imports to Iraq after the Gulf War. About two million tonnes – worth about $800m – was shipped annually to Iraq under the oil for food scheme.

Australian producers can only sell their product to AWB, which also has exclusive export rights. About $5bn of wheat is sold annually by AWB to more than 50 countries.

Company executives now face a hostile annual meeting in Melbourne next month when angry farmers and investors will demand more answers over the secret payments and why the company flouted UN sanctions.