IBAC findings into corrupt politicians to spark donation, planning reforms

“Our investigation exposed significant weaknesses in the process for amending planning permits, with... able to manipulate the process for personal gain”

Political donation and planning rules face sweeping overhauls after a corruption inquiry into a property developer’s shady dealings to influence local councillors and Victorian MPs.

The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission on Thursday released its long-awaited Operation Sandon report into Casey Council and property developers in Melbourne’s southeast.

The investigation centred on four planning proposals involving John Woodman and his clients, including one to rezone land in Cranbourne West as residential to increase its value.

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Casey councillors Sameh Aziz and Geoff Ablett accepted almost $1.2 million in payments and in-kind support for promoting the interests of Mr Woodman and his clients.

The pair repeatedly failed to declare conflicts of interest with Mr Woodman or his companies and continued trying to influence other councillors even when they did, IBAC said.

“Our investigation exposed significant weaknesses in the process for amending planning permits, with conflicted councillors easily able to manipulate the process for personal gain,” acting commissioner Stephen Farrow writes.

“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.”

Findings of guilt or recommendations to lay charges cannot be made in an IBAC report but the watchdog can make a referral to prosecutors after its release.

Mr Woodman has fought the report’s release through the courts since March 2022, including a failed appeal on Monday.

In his official response, he declared there was “no evidence” his work as a consultant was to improperly influence and claimed he did not rely on the support of Mr Aziz and Mr Ablett.

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Beyond the council, Mr Woodman donated more than $470,000 to the Labor and Liberal parties between 2010 and 2019 to access state decision-makers.

Both major parties agreed to accept membership payments in instalments from different accounts or entities to allow Mr Woodman not to federally declare the contributions.

“These fundraising entities were an important way of buying access to elected officials and senior decision-makers without transparency,”

the report reads.

Between $10,000 and $27,000 was donated to each of the election campaigns for Labor’s former Cranbourne MP Jude Perera, his successor Pauline Richards and Narre Warren MP Judith Graley.

The watchdog ruled Mr Woodman successfully lobbied two MPs he donated to, but Ms Richards was singled out with an adverse finding.

There was no evidence Ms Richards approached then-planning minister Wynne or his office before he rejected the Cranbourne West land rezoning proposal in 2020.

Ms Richards admitted she could have been more circumspect in accepting Mr Woodman’s “generous offer” but denied furthering his interests, which IBAC accepted.

No adverse findings were made against Mr Wynne, Treasurer Tim Pallas or Premier Daniel Andrews among others.

But the report detailed several representations made to Mr Andrews, including a 2017 lunch with Mr Woodman and others after a winning bid of more than $10,000 at a political fundraiser.

In a covertly intercepted phone call, lobbyist Philip Staindl described a conversation he had with the premier at a 2019 function to Mr Woodman.

“He said the premier praised Mr Woodman’s contribution to the Labor Party and lamented the fact Mr Woodman was being pursued with allegations of corruption by a journalist who was an ‘arsehole’,”

the report said.

Mr Staindl also suggested he had given the premier Mr Woodman’s telephone number and Mr Andrews had expressed interest in calling him.

In his secret examination, Mr Andrews told IBAC he could not recollect a conversation with Mr Staindl at the function but said some of the things recounted to Mr Woodman did not “ring true” or “sit well” with him.

The premier accepted Mr Staindl may have given him Mr Woodman’s number but it was “highly unlikely” it would have been to talk about a planning application.

The 308-page report did not name former City of Casey mayor Amanda Stapledon who did not provide a response before dying by suicide in 2020.

Thirty-four recommendations were made by the watchdog, including stripping councils of statutory planning responsibilities and a possible political donations ban on high-risk groups such as property developers.

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