Former Casey mayor admits to conflicts of interest in dealings with developer

Former Casey mayor Sam Aziz has conceded having undeclared conflicts of interest and inappropriate discussions when he voted on projects involving controversial developer John Woodman with whom he was secretly negotiating to sell his Berwick home.

But despite mounting allegations against Mr Aziz, including that he was under Mr Woodman’s “umbrella of corruption” at Casey, the sacked councillor has repeatedly refused to acknowledge that he took bribes.

Former Casey mayor Sam Aziz under examination by Victoria’s anti-corruption commission on Tuesday.Credit:IBAC

Mr Aziz on Thursday faced his fourth day of questioning by the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission, which is probing allegedly serious corruption involving planning decisions in Casey, including at the state level.

The commission had earlier heard allegations that Mr Aziz was a key player in Mr Woodman’s strategy of controlling the council through bribes and donations to win favourable planning outcomes, including a $150 million rezoning at Cranbourne West.

A series of Whatsapp messages from September 2018 that were read out on Thursday reveal Mr Aziz discussing financial deals with Mr Woodman’s one-time lobbyist and former Liberal MP Lorraine Wreford, including a proposal for Mr Woodman to buy a Berwick house owned by Mr Aziz.

Counsel assisting the inquiry Michael Tovey, QC, said the deal appeared to be that Mr Woodman would buy the house, allow Mr Aziz to live there rent free, and then transfer the house back to Mr Aziz at no cost when he stood down from the council after the 2020 election.

An IBAC surveillance photo of Sam Aziz (left) meeting developer John Woodman at a Subway restaurant in the suburb of Skye, in April 2018.Credit:IBAC

Mr Aziz claimed the deal was not a gift from Mr Woodman because Mr Aziz would have to have borrowed money to buy it back from the developer.

“I reckon the transfer needs to occur around the end of 2020,” Mr Aziz is heard telling Ms Wreford. "The best time is when we all cease to be councillors.”

Mr Tovey said it appeared Mr Aziz was proposing the transfer back took place after he retired from the council to reduce the likelihood of scrutiny linking his name to Mr Woodman. Mr Aziz denied this.

At the time of the 2018 recordings, Mr Aziz and his fellow councillors were voting on a road project of keen interest to Mr Woodman, known as the H3 intersection in Cranbourne.

Mr Aziz said at the time he did not believe he had a conflict of interest because he had not finalised and executed a sale contract with Mr Woodman for the house.

But under close questioning from IBAC commissioner Robert Redlich QC, Mr Aziz eventually conceded he may have erred.

“Upon reflection yes perhaps I should have declared a conflict of interest.”

The house sale to Mr Woodman did not ultimately proceed because of revelations by The Sunday Age late in 2018. A message from Ms Wreford to Mr Aziz from early 2019 and tabled at the hearing revealed Mr Woodman was concerned about the “relentless” pursuit of him by The Sunday Age.

In a recording from October 2018 shortly before the Casey mayoral election, Mr Aziz and Mr Wreford discuss who the “blood donor” – Mr Woodman – wants to become mayor and who he will not accept for the role.

In the same conversation the two also discuss financial arrangements between Mr Woodman and Mr Aziz, including Mr Aziz collecting “cash” from the developer.

Mr Aziz , who describes himself as someone seen as a “kingmaker” at Casey, is also heard pronouncing that then Cr Amanda Stapledon would become mayor – one of Mr Woodman’s two preferred candidates.

In another conversation from October 2018, the two discuss financial arrangments between Mr Aziz and Mr Woodman including cash payments.

"When do you want the cash starting?" asks Ms Wreford.

Then, in another recording after the mayoral election, Mr Aziz and Ms Wreford talk about how “we” have won with Mr Aziz explaining “we’ve still got control of the council”.

Asked whether the “we” that controlled the council was a reference to Woodman’s interests, Mr Aziz said he was referring to “good guys” among the councillors in a political sense. At the time Mr Aziz was a member of the Liberal Party.

As they discuss the outcome of the mayoral vote, Mr Aziz also asks Ms Wreford “Is the blood donor happy?”

“Why is that a concern if you don’t have a “corrupt” relationship with him,” asked Mr Tovey.

Mr Aziz has denied all allegations of corruption through this week.

But he has conceded that some of the discussions with Ms Wreford as Mr Woodman’s representative had been inappropriate.

Mr Tovery said that Mr Aziz and fellow councillor Geoff Ablett were “under Mr Woodman’s corrupt umbrella”.

The hearings of IBAC’s Operation Sandon continue Monday.

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