A major inquiry in Victoria has heard a former MP had delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cash to a local councillor on behalf of a property developer.
The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission has been investigating corruption allegations in Melbourne’s City of Casey council in a number of hearings that began on November 18. The watchdog has looked at whether state and local government planning and property development decisions had been influenced by donations, gifts, and the like, as part of Operation Sandon.
Watsons developers director John Woodman told the hearing he had hired former Mordialloc MP Lorraine Wreford as a political lobbyist. They communicated with each other via encrypted WhatsApp messages, and Wreford delivered “bags of cash” totalling more than $100,000 to Casey councillor Sam Aziz.
The inquiry had previously heard companies linked to Woodman paid more than $1.2 million into the bank accounts of Aziz and his fellow councillor Geoff Ablett.
Woodman denied the payments were for political purposes, claiming that the former mayor had given him a suitcase containing $600,000 as a loan for investment in his company. Wreford would allegedly deliver monthly interest payments of $15,000 to Aziz.
At the time, the two hid the true amount with a second “sham” contract, which recorded Aziz had only delivered $370,000.
Counsel assisting Michael Tovey, QC, said the documents had been used to “perpetuate” fraud. Woodman blamed his actions on naivety.
Aziz did not attend the hearings. He sold his house and left for Egypt after the watchdog had raided his house, according to Tovey. On Monday, Aziz took to Facebook to claim he had left the country to “pursue business and academic opportunities”.
“I intend to vigorously defend all and any allegations made against me only through the legal process, not through media commentary,” he said.
Aziz spoke to the Herald Sun on Tuesday to defend the nature of the transactions, denying the payments had influenced any council planning decisions.
“Unfortunately these allegations are coming out, and they are probably giving the public the impression that the councillors have got their snouts in the trough. Well, we don’t,” he said.
“Sure, there’s been some commercial relationships, but I want to say this … if I had my time again I would have made exactly the same planning decisions that I did. I can put my hand on my heart and say that.”
Aziz began his government career at the federal Department of Defence in 1997, working for Defence Acquisitions. He then became an International Policy Adviser in Defence Headquarters. The following year, he took on a manager role at the Attorney General’s Department.
He worked in security roles before joining the Australian Customs and Border Protection in Melbourne, where he worked as a director for 14 years, and has served in a number of roles including as Director Intelligence and Director Investigations.
He has also worked in various Victorian government roles, including commissioner for Multicultural Affairs, and director on the board of the Victorian Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Organisation.
He was first elected as a councillor to the City of Casey in 2008, and was first elected Mayor in 2011. He has moved between the two positions a number of times.
Casey residents have been questioning the relationship between the council and Woodman for several years.