By Cam Lucadou-Wells
Casey councillor Geoff Ablett has told an anti-corruption hearing that he couldn’t remember a $5000 payment from a property developer in the lead-up to a crucial planning vote.
The developer John Woodman had used a false name to make the “Santa Clause payment” into Cr Ablett’s joint account on 13 November 2013, the IBAC Operation Sandon hearing was told.
IBAC alleges that Cr Ablett received $330,000 in total from Mr Woodman such as part shares in racehorses, buying part of Cr Ablett’s rural property and fees for looking after Mr Woodman’s racehorses.
Cr Ablett’s account balance had been a “very precarious” $33 before the $5000 deposit, Counsel assisting IBAC, Michael Tovey QC said.
Cr Ablett initially proffered the payment came for work done at Hawthorn Football Club, then for the upkeep of his horse Good Call for which Mr Woodman had a part-share.
“And was that something that you and he felt that needed to be hidden?” Mr Tovey asked.
Cr Ablett said Mr Woodman had always paid by cheque, and didn’t know why he was paid in such a method on that occasion.
“I have no idea why he used a false name. I didn’t ask him to.
“I don’t believe there’s any corruption involved.”
Mr Woodman also paid Cr Ablett’s account $5000 on 17 January after it was overdrawn, as well as paying off Cr Ablett’s $15,000 credit card debt in March.
At the time, Cr Ablett was seeking to clear his credit card debt during Liberal Party preselection for the seat of Cranbourne in the 2014 state election. Mr Woodman also donated $40,000 towards Cr Ablett’s campaign.
The payments also occurred just before and after Casey Council considered a Woodman-related proposal Amendment C219 to rezone industrial land for housing in February 2014.
It was a move that would create a windfall profit of tens of millions of dollars for developer Leighton.
If successful, Mr Woodman had told IBAC he stood to make about $2 million as a consultant for Leighton.
Cr Ablett said he couldn’t remember if he was aware of Mr Woodman’s involvement in C219, nor could he remember the item coming before the council.
“I wish Mr Woodman had told me of his involvement because I wouldn’t have been in the room if he had.”
Cr Ablett said he couldn’t remember a Mr Woodman email with a briefing note on C219 addressed to him and councillors Sam Aziz and Amanda Stapledon – “Sam Amanda Geoff as discussed”.
The notice-of-motion attached was introduced by Cr Aziz as an urgent business item the next day.
“Yes, he probably had a discussion with me, but with that meeting I didn’t realise that he had interests in it,” Cr Ablett told the hearing.
He said he only realised Mr Woodman had a “financial interest” in C219 “in the last couple of years”.
“And it’s no coincidence, is it, that immediately before he’s made payments of 10,000 cash into your accounts and then immediately after the vote he’s benefited you with a payment of 15,000 into your credit card?” Mr Tovey asked.
“No, I saw them as two completely separate things. I did not do anything for him for payment, not in regard to council, no.
I would not do that for him.”
Cr Ablett said he paid back Mr Woodman by not invoicing him for several months in 2015 for looking after Mr Woodman’s part-owned horse.
On 1 April 2014, a report on C219 came back to the council stating that Mr Woodman’s company Watsons was involved in the application.
Cr Ablett, who was mayor at the time, chaired the meeting, didn’t declare a conflict of interest and voted on the item.
“No I was not on the take. I never took money to make decisions.
“I should have read the agenda more closely and read that properly.”
Cr Ablett voted on the issue three more times in 2014 before declaring a conflict of interest regarding Watsons in early 2015.
He said it had been Mr Woodman’s idea to declare the conflict.
IBAC Commissioner Robert Redlich asked Cr Ablett about declaring a conflict of interest after being interviewed by the State Ombudsman on the matter.
“No I wasn’t conscious of that.”
Cr Ablett said he’d thought of Mr Woodman as a “good friend” at the time.
“We got along well and never did I consider horses a part of council until the (IBAC) Commissioner pointed out the perception last Thursday.”
Earlier at IBAC, Mr Woodman described his $17,500 alleged payments to Cr Ablett in the lead-up to Amendment C219 as a “coincidence”.
He said he couldn’t remember making $80,000 in cash deposits to Cr Aziz at the same time.
Mr Woodman said he couldn’t recall depositing cash under a false name to Cr Ablett.
“No, I have no explanation for that.”
He denied the $15,000 credit-card repayment was “corrupt” or “improper”.