Council takeover plot

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

Ex-mayor Sam Aziz has revealed an attempt with Jim’s Mowing founder Jim Penman to “take over” Yarra Ranges Council with a like-minded group of councillors.

The aim was to install a predominantly Liberal “working majority” – “good people” to replicate the “success” of Casey Council, he told an IBAC inquiry on 16 November.

They would be community servants with skills in business and “good governance”, Mr Aziz said.

Mr Aziz said he had been in talks with Mr Penman, Jim’s Group chief executive Tino Grossi as well as members of Mr Aziz’s “political circle“ about the “project”.

Mr Penman had expressed “great frustration” about Yarra Ranges councillors, Mr Aziz said.

Counsel assisting IBAC, Michael Tovey, asked if Mr Aziz wanted to export a “model of corruption” from Casey to Yarra Ranges.

Mr Aziz, who is under investigation over allegedly corrupt land deals at the Operation Sandon inquiry, dismissed the “ridiculous question”.

“There’s no corruption or behaviour traits, as you describe, Mr Tovey, in relation to Casey Council.”

It achieved a “majority of hard-working individuals” delivering “one of the best local governments this country has ever seen”, he said.

“Our financial position speaks for it in terms of the council budget.

“The achievements we’ve made speaks for it, and I was trying to deliver that model to another council.

“As it turned out that was a very short-lived aspiration because of the commencement of the IBAC inquiry.”

Mr Aziz said he’d become an “expert” in getting candidates elected onto council. He discussed with former Casey mayor Janet Halsall with helping the Yarra Ranges push.

In the 2016 Casey council election, Mr Aziz enlisted Ms Halsall as campaign manager for about 20 candidates that “we wanted to support”.

He said he had no knowledge about developer John Woodman funding their campaigns. Substantial fundraisers had been held for candidates, including Cr Aziz himself.

The inquiry had earlier heard Mr Woodman bankrolled the effort with between $50,000-$98,000.

False invoices for the campaign were allegedly funnelled through Ms Halsall’s mattress shop.

Mr Aziz told the inquiry that he may have spoken to Mr Woodman and Woodman lobbyist Lorraine Wreford.

But they weren’t “decision makers” in Mr Aziz’s strategy.

Ms Wreford was told to “keep her nose out”, Mr Aziz said.

According to Ms Wreford, Mr Aziz pitched the scheme to Mr Woodman over lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Dandenong.

Ms Wreford said her own part was to ensure “invoices got paid, nothing else”.

Mr Aziz had pitched the idea on the basis of helping candidates “who don’t have the means to run for council”, Ms Wreford said.

“If you have a ward in the City of Casey, it’s almost as big as a state electorate.

“So to actually financially fund a campaign to even put one brochure out is quite expensive.”

Mr Aziz’s campaign may not have received any of the Woodman funding, she told the inquiry.

Mr Woodman had told the inquiry that he paid about $50,000.

Prior to the election, candidates were rated by Mr Woodman’s associates as either “friendly”, opponents or unknown in their attitude towards Amendment C219.

The amendment was proposed to rezone a large tract of industrial land in Cranbourne West to residential use – a push that was being driven by Mr Woodman and developer Leighton.

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