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February 3, 2020

Two Casey councillors resign amid ‘pay for play’ controversy for town planning approvals

IBAC is holding public examinations into allegations of serious corrupt conduct in relation to planning and property development decisions at the City of Casey council.

The City of Casey, in Melbourne’s south-east, is Victoria’s most populous local government area and one of the fastest growing in the nation. It is home to more than 340,000 residents and includes the suburbs of Berwick, Narre Warren and Cranbourne.

The examinations are part of an IBAC investigation, Operation Sandon, into allegations of corrupt conduct involving councillors and property developers in the City of Casey in Melbourne’s south-east. The initial phase of the public examinations ran from 18 November to 6 December 2019. Examinations will recommence on 2 March 2020.

For months the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission has been examining council decisions related to property development and planning in the City of Casey as part of Operation Sandon. It heard property developer John Woodman allegedly paid at least $1.2 million in bribes to former Casey mayors Sam Aziz and Geoff Ablett in a bid to win planning approvals for his clients.

There is widespread speculation that Casey Council are set to be sacked by the state government as early as this week when laws to sack the council could be introduced to Parliament when it sits on Tuesday, with two councillors resigning ahead of the likely purge. Councillor Timothy Jackson and Cr Rex Flannery resigned from their post on 14 Feb 2020.”I no longer hold confidence in council’s ability to exercise decision-making to the standard that our residents expect,” Councillor Timothy Jackson said in a statement.

What is the story?

Cranbourne West Rezoning

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

At the hearing of IBAC, it was revealed 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.

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”.

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.

John Woodman

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. 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.

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 Geoff Ablett

IBAC says former Hawthorn premiership player Geoff Ablett, 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”. 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.

The examinations are part of an IBAC investigation, Operation Sandon, into allegations of corrupt conduct involving councillors and property developers in the City of Casey. The initial phase of the public examinations ran from 18 November to 6 December 2019. Examinations will recommence on 2 March 2020. 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.