Australia: What you need to know about the corruption inquiry into City of Casey Council - - PressFrom - Australia

Australia What you need to know about the corruption inquiry into City of Casey Council

00:41  23 november  2019
00:41  23 november  2019 Source:

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The public hearings have blown open allegations of a high-flying developer attempting to pay off not just councillors, but state political candidates, a community group and Aboriginal leaders.

Counsel assisting IBAC Michael Tovey QC said the process "reeked of corruption".

The hearings also revealed donations were made to Andrews Government ministers, including Jobs Minister Martin Pakula.

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The City of Casey is a local government area in Victoria, Australia in the outer south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Casey is Victoria's most populous municipality, with a 2016 census population of 299

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IBAC's Operation Sandon is investigating whether public officers — Casey councillors — have been improperly influenced through donations and gifts.

Who is John Woodman?

Ferrari-driving, multi-millionaire John Woodman has been a prominent Melbourne property developer since the 1980s.

He's accused of paying massive amounts of money to City of Casey councillors so they'd vote in favour of his planning decisions.

So far, the inquiry has heard evidence Mr Woodman and his associated companies gave Casey councillors Sam Aziz and Geoff Ablett $1.2 million.

The commission heard Mr Woodman held $600,000 cash which was delivered to him in a suitcase from Cr Aziz in 2017, which Mr Woodman returned with interest, totalling $822,000.

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Some of the money was returned through payments to the bank accounts of Cr Aziz's family members or funds to pay off his tax debts.

Covert surveillance of Mr Woodman shows him meeting councillors and the inquiry has heard secret recordings of phone calls in which he admits paying off Aboriginal groups to get around heritage claims.

The inquiry also heard he used a fake name to deposit some of the cash to councillors and that he drafted motions and sent scripts to councillors to read out at meetings when his developments would be voted on.

How does IBAC see the actions?

In one word, corrupt.

Mr Tovey told the inquiry, Mr Woodman maintained "a very close and controlling association with a core group of councillors".

"[They] were expected to and did line up votes in favour of his interests," he said.

Mr Tovey told the inquiry Mr Woodman treated the councillors like "puppets", to further his own interests.

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"The corrupt cash payments were structured in a bid to disguise the flow of funds from Mr Woodman and his related entities," Mr Tovey said.

He told the inquiry, Mr Woodman using a fake name to transfer funds to a councillor "reeked of corruption".

Three projects are under investigation as part of the IBAC hearings.

Cranbourne West Rezoning

Council opposed the proposed rezoning of the Cranbourne West Precinct from industrial to residential land in 2014, but backflipped and supported it in 2015.

The inquiry heard the rezoning would have increased the value of the land by more than $100 million for one of Mr Woodman's companies, Leighton Properties.

The proposal is still with Planning Minister Richard Wynne.

Hall Road intersection

Cr Aziz pushed for the immediate construction of an intersection at Hall Road at Cranbourne West, against the advice of the council's planning officers, the hearings were told.

IBAC said the acceleration of the project would have delivered "windfall profits" for the developer Wolfdene, for whom Mr Woodman was working as a consultant, by "enabling it to develop land well ahead of the time it otherwise would have been able to".

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Pavilion estate

An amendment was moved by Cr Aziz last year to reduce the amount of open space required at the Pavilion housing estate and increase the amount of land being developed by Woodman-linked company Wolfdene.

So, who are the councillors and key players involved?

Cr Sam Aziz

IBAC alleges councillor Sam Aziz received $900,000 in payments from Mr Woodman or his associated companies over several years.

The inquiry heard he was paid $80,000 by companies linked to Mr Woodman for his advice on plans for a satellite city at Little River, west of Melbourne.

Cr Aziz is currently in Egypt and IBAC told the inquiry it didn't know if Cr Aziz would return to face public hearings.

The inquiry heard he sold his house after police searched his property as part of the investigation a month ago.

Cr Aziz said in a Facebook post earlier this week he will return to Australia to defend himself.

Cr Geoff Ablett

IBAC says former Hawthorn premiership player Geoff Ablett — the brother of Geelong legend Gary Ablett Sr, and a current City of Casey Councillor — received more than $330,000 from Mr Woodman or his associated companies.

The inquiry heard he received thousands of dollars in payments from Mr Woodman funnelled through Victorian horse breeder, Spicer Thoroughbreds, without the knowledge of the company's owner who said the payments were "totally unauthorised".

IBAC hears City of Casey Councillor Sam Aziz asked former MP Lorraine Wreford to lie to corruption inquiry

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Cr Ablett also received $15,000 in bank transfers from Mr Woodman either unsigned or under a fake name to pay off his credit card debt in 2014, before he ran as a Liberal candidate for the seat of Cranbourne in the Victorian election.

Mr Woodman also bought a share of Cr Ablett's land in Mountain View in eastern Victoria for more than $300,000.

Lorraine Wreford

The former state Liberal MP and Casey mayor was hired by Mr Woodman as a political lobbyist and was paid $5,000 a month.

The inquiry heard she was also promised a trip to Europe for her and her boyfriend if the Cranbourne West rezoning project was successful.

Ms Wreford would deliver bags of cash totalling more than $100,000 from Mr Woodman to Cr Aziz as interest payments, the inquiry was told.

The inquiry also heard Mr Woodman would only speak to Ms Wreford in encrypted WhatsApp messages and IBAC accused Ms Wreford of behaving like a "drug dealer" using code words such as "the package" to refer to the payments.

She also referred to Mr Woodman as "the blood donor" when discussing him with Cr Aziz, the inquiry heard.

Megan Schutz

Megan Schutz was hired by Mr Woodman as a planning consultant.

IBAC told the inquiry Cr Aziz was a "blank canvas", being fed instructions by Ms Schutz.

A secret recording of a phone call between Mr Woodman and Ms Schutz revealed Ms Schutz discussing a motion about the Hall Road intersection after a City of Casey council meeting.

"If Sam Aziz just stuck to his f***en' script, we wouldn't have had the f***ery we had tonight," Ms Schutz said to Mr Woodman during the phone call.

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"Sam Aziz did a crap job tonight, he didn't do what I asked him to do, he's a fool that guy," Ms Schutz said on the call.

Ms Schutz wanted Cr Aziz to raise safety issues as the reason why the construction of the Hall Road intersection had to be accelerated, the inquiry heard.

Ray Walker

Ray Walker is the president of the Save Cranbourne West Residents Action Group, which campaigned in support of the construction of the Hall Road intersection.

Payments totalling $193,000 from Mr Woodman's company Watsons and consultant Ms Schutz were deposited into an account associated with Mr Walker.

The inquiry heard Mr Woodman paid Mr Walker $60,000 a year to collect real estate data, despite the fact he had no expertise in that field.

IBAC alleges Mr Woodman was behind the creation of the community group claiming the group was "the creature of developers".

How does the developer explain his actions?

Mr Woodman has strongly denied allegations he paid councillors to secure votes on his planning developments.

He told the inquiry he paid Cr Ablett to look after his racehorses and Cr Aziz for his consultancy work.

He said he thought both councillors would declare a conflict of interest at council meetings before they voted on his companies' developments.

On the stand, Mr Woodman told the inquiry the "benefit of hindsight" has made him realise disguising payments to councillors was improper.

"It was never my intention to persuade any persons who were in positions to make decisions in my favour or otherwise, by providing them with financial incentives to do so," Mr Woodman said.

He also said it was his understanding that politicians who received money from him would declare a conflict of interest when matters arose involving his projects.

IBAC said Mr Woodman paid the Labor Party $157,900 at last year's election, which increased when it was predicted to win, while he paid the Liberal Party $63,000, which dropped last year along with its odds.

What's next?

Mr Woodman will take the stand on Monday for what's likely to be his final day of evidence.

Ten more witnesses are expected to be called including some of the councillors and consultants mentioned during the first week of hearings.

If there's found to be evidence of corruption, IBAC can bring criminal proceedings against the parties involved and it can also refer the matter to the Office of Public Prosecutions.

The hearings are expected to continue for three weeks.

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