IBAC probe finds widespread suspect payments to councillors, MPs vulnerable to corruption

By Royce Millar and Ben Schneiders

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A Victorian property developer who once had lunch with Premier Daniel Andrews “bought access to decision-makers” by paying former local mayors and Liberal Party members about $1.2 million, showing how limits on laws regulating lobbyists leave politicians vulnerable to corruption, the state anti-corruption watchdog has found.

Victoria’s Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC) tabled its Operation Sandon report on Thursday, finding property developer John Woodman made payments totalling about $1.2 million to former Casey mayors and Liberal Party members Sam Aziz and Geoff Ablett – including cash payments in suitcases and shopping bags – in return for support for lucrative planning decisions.

Sam Aziz, John Woodman and Geoff Ablett all received adverse findings in the IBAC report.Credit: Marija Ercegovac

“The investigation showed the extent to which a property developer and consultant such as Mr Woodman can invest across the political spectrum to buy access to decision-makers at the local and state government levels,” the report said.

Operation Sandon is the most lengthy, costly and sweeping investigation of raw corruption in Victoria since IBAC was established more than a decade ago.

Developer John Woodman photographed on St Kilda Road on Thursday morning.Credit: Eddie Jim

If the report’s 34 recommendations are accepted, the IBAC inquiry will trigger the biggest shake-up in Victoria’s local government and planning laws in decades, including the possibility of stripping of planning powers from local councils and the expanded taxing of windfalls from land use changes, and the major tightening of donation and lobbying laws.

The Sandon investigation centred on issues first publicly raised by The Age in 2011 and again in 2018 around land deals at the City of Casey and the outsized influence of flamboyant developer and planner Woodman.

In the 304-page report IBAC makes adverse findings against a long list of political and business figures, including sitting Labor MP for Cranbourne Pauline Richards.

It is unclear exactly why Richards is listed as having adverse findings against her. However, it is important to note that adverse findings do not amount to wrongdoing. The report seems to suggest the adverse findings relate to Richards’ failure to disclose a $20,000 Woodman donation to her 2018 election campaign.

IBAC’s investigation focused on four planning matters involving Woodman and his associates, all of which were highlighted by a Sunday Age story in October, 2018.

The key case study in the report was his bid to rezone industrial land in Cranbourne West to residential, a move that would have netted construction giant Leighton Properties, now owned by CIMIC, Woodman and others a combined tens of millions of dollars.

After The Sunday Age revelations in October 2018, the rezoning was finally rejected by then planning minister Richard Wynne in 2020.

Sandon found that Woodman and his associates “directly paid” councillors Aziz and Ablett in exchange for their support, donated to state candidates and MPs who they believed could help, and funded a residents’ action group which actively backed the rezoning.

Premier Daniel Andrews was privately examined as part of the five-year inquiry, but is cleared of any wrongdoing. He was questioned over a lunch he had with Woodman and Labor-linked lobbyist Phil Staindl at the Flower Drum in Chinatown in 2017 and separate lobbying from Staindl at a fundraising event in early 2019 over the Cranbourne West rezoning.

Andrews said he could not remember having the 2019 conversation with Staindl or the contents of it. But Andrews said some of Staindl’s recollections – which the lobbyist later conceded may have included some exaggerations – did not “ring true”.

Andrews said he would not have suggested to Staindl he had any role in the rezoning decision.

Nonetheless, the report is uncomfortable reading for the premier, his Labor government and his Liberal opponents, with Woodman a well-known and generous donor to both sides for decades.

The report found that “as a group” Casey councillors “exhibited and tolerated behaviour that did not meet the standards required of them”.

It found that Aziz and Ablett promoted Woodman and his clients’ interests on council in exchange for payment and in-kind support, both failing to declare conflicts of interest in relation to their involvement with Woodman or his companies on many occasions.

Ablett and Woodman, in a written response to IBAC, denied wrongdoing.

Ablett said he rejected any inferences of corrupt, illegal or unethical conduct and that he received any payments, gifts or benefits in exchange for favourable council outcomes. IBAC rejected Ablett’s submissions.

Woodman denied he had corrupted Casey council and said it was a “false statement without evidence” that his firm relied on a core group of councillors to advance his interests.

“There is no evidence that the work of Mr Woodman as a consultant was to improperly influence, i.e. dishonestly or unlawfully, or unduly influence decisions by council via any or all the mechanisms alleged.”

IBAC said in response it rejected Woodman’s assertions and said he had directly paid councillors Aziz and Ablett for their support. Aziz did not respond to the report, but has previously denied he was corrupt.

Leighton Properties said it could not respond to adverse comments in the report as it did not have the documents relied upon by IBAC. It said any improper conduct by former employees and consultants was taken outside “the scope of their authority and contrary to the terms of their employment.”

Casey, in Melbourne’s south-east fringe, is one of the biggest and fastest-growing municipalities in Australia where instant fortunes are made whenever councillors and planning ministers earmark humble cow and veggie fields as new housing estates.

At the local level, councillors are required to declare conflicts like gifts, payments and donations from an individual or company involved in matters before the council. Numerous councillors over many years failed this simple task, the report found.

In a statement accompanying the report, IBAC Acting Commissioner Stephen Farrow said planning decisions had an impact on the liveability of all Victorians, so it was vital that such decisions be protected from improper influence and corruption.

“We found that safeguards around deciding whether to amend a planning scheme were bypassed,” Farrow said.

“The planning amendments we looked at as part of this operation reached the desks of decision makers in local and state government, without strategic reasons for their implementation.”

Farrow said the investigation showed how ministers, members of parliament, councillors, ministerial advisers and electorate officers may be targeted by lobbyists, and “how limitations in the current regulation of lobbyists present corruption vulnerabilities”.

The report includes 34 recommendations to promote transparency in planning decisions; enhance donation and lobbying regulation; improve the accountability of ministerial advisers and electorate officers and strengthen council governance.

A special IBAC report calling for reforms to donations and lobbying laws, tabled in a 2022, also emanated from the Sandon inquiry which was held up for months by legal challenges from Woodman.

So effective was Woodman in winning access and influence that IBAC heard through 40 days of public hearings and 800 hours of recordings that he had made Casey councillors his “puppets” and a group of sitting and aspiring state MPs effectively part of his “team”.

The Andrews government sacked the entire Casey Council in 2020.

Sandon also highlights how Woodman and associates sought to influence state planning decisions, showering state and federal politicians with donations and political spending totalling almost $1 million over nine years and 180 transactions – the bulk of it never disclosed – and targeting local MPs and candidates from both major parties.

The five-year IBAC investigation included the use of secret phone taps, photographs and footage and unprecedented weeks of public testimony.

Former mayor Amanda Stapledon, who took her own life in early 2022, was referred to in the report as Councillor A. IBAC found she regularly declared a conflict of interest at council in her dealings with Woodman but in incomplete terms. She was reported as saying she had been “bitterly disappointed” in herself.

Councillor A was listed among those people with adverse findings against them but IBAC noted, due to her passing, she was unable to respond or refute any allegations, comments or findings.

IBAC vowed to review its practices after criticism in June from a coroner who investigated Stapledon’s death.

It accepted recommendations from coroner David Ryan after he found delays by the watchdog affected Stapledon’s mental health before she took her own life.

She had not been informed that IBAC was not pursuing criminal proceedings against her. Ryan said Stapledon’s uncertainty about whether she would be prosecuted caused her significant stress.

The government is expected to provide a response to Sandon Thursday afternoon.

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