A property developer’s consultant directed City of Casey councillors on how to vote on planning decisions by sending live text messages during council meetings, a corruption inquiry has heard.
- Councillor Geoff Ablett said he regretted receiving texts from developer John Woodman’s staff
- Mr Ablett said he only did what he was told to ensure the safety of the Hall Road intersection
- The hearing was told Mr Ablett bragged about forcing Casey CEO Mike Tyler to resign
The Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC) is investigating allegations multi-millionaire developer John Woodman paid City of Casey councillors so they would vote in favour of his planning developments.
The inquiry was shown text messages Mr Woodman’s consultant Megan Schutz sent to councillors Sam Aziz and Geoff Ablett while council was considering upgrading the Hall Road intersection in Cranbourne West last year.
The upgrades would allow Mr Woodman to develop land ahead of schedule.
The motion, which stated safety concerns meant the Hall Road intersection had to be built immediately, was rescinded at the next council meeting after it was ruled what had been proposed was illegal.
“Read out the highlighted bits,” Ms Schutz told both councillors in a text message sent during the meeting where the upgrades were first discussed.
“Take Duncan on,” she said in another text, referring to the council officer who prepared the report.
Another text message said: “Got it through just!!”
Counsel assisting IBAC Michael Tovey QC said Cr Aziz and Cr Ablett were being “coached intimately in real time” to promote the developers interests.
“Do you not see here this is the most flagrant abuse of the conflict situation you are in?” IBAC commissioner Robert Redlich QC said.
“I shouldn’t have done it,” Cr Ablett said.
“Why did you do it?” Mr Redlich asked.
“For the overall safety benefits of Hall Road,” Cr Ablett said.
Mr Tovey told the inquiry it was a clear misuse of Cr Ablett’s position as a councillor.
Former roads minister pulled into inquiry
Meanwhile, Child Protection Minister Luke Donnellan’s name was brought up at the corruption hearings, over his involvement in the Hall Road intersection.
Cr Ablett told the inquiry he spoke to Mr Donnellan about duplicating Hall Road while he was roads minister and said after the meeting Mr Donnellan was “on board with it”.
“I tried to get Luke Donnellan to channel some money over to duplicate the Hall Road intersection to make it the safest road possible and that road has now been duplicated,” Cr Ablett said.
He said he did not tell Mr Donnellan about the conflict of interest he had with the developer.
Mr Tovey told the inquiry Cr Ablett “intervened” with Mr Donnellan to “advance the intersection”.
A media release from Mr Donnellan’s office from October 2018 detailed the $169 million Hall Road investment duplicated 5.2 kilometres from McCormicks Road to Cranbourne-Frankston Road and doubled the existing two lanes to four.
Councillor bragged about getting rid of Casey CEO
Mr Tovey said Cr Ablett was “absolutely in the thrall” of Mr Woodman and bragged to him about getting rid of long-standing City of Casey chief executive Mike Tyler.
Mr Tovey claimed Cr Ablett forced Mr Tyler into retirement because he did not support the Cranbourne West development (C219), which would have provided Mr Woodman and his companies with a $100 million windfall.
An email was shown to the inquiry written by Cr Ablett telling Mr Tyler a review would be conducted into several serious issues related to his performance if his departure was not guaranteed within a week.
“You as councillors had the power to hire and fire CEOs,” Mr Tovey said.
“No sir, we went through the proper processes,” Cr Ablett said.
The inquiry was shown notes made by the president of the Cranbourne West Residents Action Group, Ray Walker, after a meeting with Cr Ablett in June last year.
“[Cr Ablett] said Mike was an obstructionist amongst other thing and that council were just there as a rubber stamp,” Mr Walker’s notes said.
He said Mr Tyler vehemently opposed to the land being rezoned remarking it “would have to be over his dead body”.
The notes also said Cr Ablett remarked the council seemed remanent of the “old guard” and said they would “slowly be weeded out”.
“After you learnt he opposed C219, you set out to do a hatchet job on Mike Tyler,” Mr Tovey said.
“I absolutely dispute that,” Cr Ablett said.
“You were trying to put the skids under Mr Tyler because Mr Tyler was opposed to C219?” Mr Tovey said.
“C219 had absolutely nothing to do with Mr Tyler leaving,” Cr Ablett said.
Cr Ablett told the inquiry a number of councillors had issues with Mr Tyler’s ability.
The inquiry heard Cr Ablett declared a conflict of interest in relation to Mr Woodman’s interest in the Cranbourne West development in 2015.
But Mr Tovey alleged Cr Ablett was actively trying to promote the development and put forward a strategy to get the Minister for Planning Richard Wynne onside, by “using” the Labor candidate for Cranbourne and now MP Pauline Richards.
“The best way to tackle this was to put the heavies on Pauline Richards,” Cr Ablett allegedly said.
“Tell her that the council approved the rezoning, the panel approved it and all the boxes have been ticked off and that Richard Wynne should have signed off on it by now, what’s the hold up?” the notes said.
“[Ask her] Pauline, can you please explain why there is a delay in Richard Wynne giving a final approval,” the notes said.
Mr Tovey told the inquiry Cr Ablett was putting forward a strategy to convince the Planning Minister to give the development final approval.
“You are discussing how Pauline Richards might be used to pressure the Minister?” Mr Tovey asked.
“I never rang Pauline Richards and put pressure on her,” Cr Ablett said.
The inquiry also heard Cr Ablett would make a financial windfall if the Cranbourne West development went through, because he expected Mr Woodman to buy more horses from him.
The inquiry has previously heard a secret phone call of Cr Ablett bragging to Mr Woodman about gathering information, getting Mr Tyler into a corner and “nailing him”.
Cr Ablett told the inquiry he had only met with Mr Woodman’s consultant once, but evidence showed he had met her at least four times.
“My memory is failing me a bit, it’s not as good as it used to be,” Cr Ablett said.
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