Developers 'gave two Aussie councillors $1.2m’: watchdog

More than $1.2 million was given to two City of Casey councillors by developers involved in major planning decisions, the state's anti-corruption watchdog has alleged.

The stunning revelations form a major part of Operation Sandon, which was set up by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission to probe whether planning decisions in Melbourne's booming southeastern suburbs were improperly influenced by gifts and donations.

In his opening statement of three weeks of public hearings that started today, Counsel assisting the commission Michael Tovey QC said that three core projects in Casey were the subject of the inquiry, and that two councillors involved in decision-making had money directly deposited in bank accounts associated with them.

He alleged that Cr Sam Aziz - a former mayor - accepted "close to $900,000" and repeatedly voted in favour of development decisions that favoured companies from which he benefited.

Mr Aziz has recently flown to Egypt, and the IBAC is unaware whether he will return to face public hearings into the probe.

Another councillor, Geoff Ablett - also a former mayor - received "over $300,000".

 

Cr Sam Aziz in 2016. Picture: Chris Eastman
Cr Sam Aziz in 2016. Picture: Chris Eastman

 

Casey councillor Geoff Ablett when mayor in 2013.
Casey councillor Geoff Ablett when mayor in 2013.

The projects included the Cranbourne West Precinct Structure plan, an intersection upgrade in Hall Rd, and a development known as Pavilion Estate.

"The payments are just some of the devices used to provide benefits to councillors," Mr Tovey said.

One of the developers alleged to have provided payments for influence includes John Charles Woodman, a director at development company Watsons.

Mr Tovey said as well as payments coming from his companies, Mr Woodman made political donations worth more than $400,000.

Mr Woodman is set to be grilled by IBAC today, as the first day of public hearings likely to last three weeks.

Mr Tovey said councillors at Casey voted on planning decisions after receiving undeclared gifts from developers involved in projects.

With regards to the Cranbourne West Precinct Structure Plan, Mr Tovey said decisions to re-zone land were worth "well over $100 million" to some parties involved.

He said payments were deposited into bank accounts associated with Cr Aziz, and that he repeatedly voted in favour of developers without ever flagging a conflict of interest with developers from who he received money.

John Charles Woodman, director of Watsons.
John Charles Woodman, director of Watsons.

Some of the matters IBAC will probe include whether a "bloc" of councillors in Casey was set up to influence decisions on behalf of developers, and whether there had been serious corrupt conduct in Melbourne's southeast.

The IBAC set up Operation Sandon to probe allegations of serious corrupt conduct in relation to planning and property development decisions at the City of Casey - which takes in suburbs such as Cranbourne, Berwick, Doveton, Hallam, Hampton Park and Clyde.

When he announced the public hearings, IBAC commissioner Robert Redlich QC said they would consider whether public officers involved in planning decisions were improperly influenced through "donations, gifts, pro bono services or other hospitality".

"These public hearings will examine the transparency and integrity of planning and property development decisions, and whether lobbyists or planning consultants have had undue influence over state and local government planning and property development decisions," Commissioner Redlich said.



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