From today’s Age newspaper:

Developer paid millions into the accounts of local councillors: corruption probe

Companies linked to Ferrari-driving property developer John Woodman paid two councillors at Casey $1.2 million in what a lawyer for the Victorian anti-corruption commission said was an attempt to win favourable planning decisions worth up to $100 million in one case.

The payments were revealed as public hearings got under way in IBAC’s Operation Sandon, the most significant probe into alleged planning-related corruption in Victoria in decades.

On Monday morning, counsel assisting the hearing, Michael Tovey, QC, outlined the focus of Operation Sandon into matters that he said may amount to serious corruption of planning. Key issues of interest were central to stories in The Sunday Age in October and November last year, including the proposed rezoning of land in Cranbourne West owned by construction giant Leighton, and council decisions favourable to Woodman-linked company Wolfdene, including the Pavilion housing development and the construction of an intersection at Hall’s Road in Cranbourne.

Mr Tovey said the attempted rezoning of the Cranbourne West precinct from industrial to residential uses would have “increased its value by well over $100 million”.

Mr Tovey explained how IBAC had found payments of $900,000 by Mr Woodman’s company, Watsons Pty Ltd, into bank accounts linked to former mayor and Liberal Party activist councillor Sam Aziz, who had repeatedly argued and voted for planning decisions favouring Watsons-linked projects.

Former mayor and one-time aspiring Liberal MP Geoff Ablett received payments into his bank account of $300,000. He had also received tens of thousands of dollars from Watsons when he unsuccessfully contested the state election in 2014.

Cr Aziz will not appear before the hearing. He left the country on extended leave weeks ago, as Operation Sandon stepped up and homes and offices were raided. Mr Tovey told the hearing that shortly after IBAC raided his house, Cr Aziz sold his home and left Australia for Egypt. IBAC subsequently froze the proceeds of the sale.

On Sunday, Cr Aziz told The Age he was in Dubai. It’s unclear when or if he plans to return to Melbourne. Mr Tovey also detailed the repeated failure by Cr Aziz to declare conflicts of interest at council meetings.

In his opening statement, Mr Tovey detailed how Woodman and related companies used financial payments into councillors’ bank accounts, political donations and other gifts to “curry favour” with councillors in an attempt to win favourable planning decisions.

Included were payments to $25,000 a month to Cr Aziz for supposed consultancy work on a grand scheme for a satellite city at Little River west of Melbourne. Cr Aziz was to be paid $600,000 for the consultancy work. Under questioning, Mr Woodman confirmed that Cr Aziz had not delivered the work he been commissioned to do.

Watsons Pty Ltd has long prided itself on winning unlikely planning approvals, especially rezonings in farming and green-wedge areas. Donations and in-kind support to councillors and MPs is an important part of the Watsons strategy for planning success.

Mr Woodman’s client list or business partners have included, or include, the Fox, Ansett and Baillieu-Myer clans, as well as Tony Madafferi, the man police have alleged to be Melbourne’s mafia boss.

The public hearing comes weeks after IBAC raided the homes and offices of Mr Woodman and other key figures of interest including councillors, lobbyists and former Liberal MPs. While the hearings will focus on Casey, IBAC’s public comments make it clear Operation Sandon is far wider in scope and will look at systemic problems in planning decisions statewide.

Casey, which takes in swelling suburbs such as Cranbourne, Berwick, Clyde and Hallam, is one of the fastest-growing municipalities in Australia.

In a written statement earlier this month, Mr Woodman said: “Having worked in the City of Casey for more than 30 years, I have become really attached to the communities that I have helped build … relationships have been developed with many councillors.

“I am a trusting and caring person, and I have trusted that each councillor I worked with would make the right decisions.”