By Cam Lucadou-Wells
Federal MP Jason Wood’s office has become linked to a property-developer funded Casey Council election campaign.
Developer John Woodman paid nearly $100,000 to bank-roll nine core candidates plus support candidates in the 2016 campaign, an IBAC Operation Sandon hearing was told.
The campaign was conceived by Cr Sam Aziz, and managed by former Casey mayor Janet Halsall and her husband Bob – also an ex-Casey councillor.
Ms Halsall was also a staffer in Mr Wood’s La Trobe electorate office. She reportedly has stood down after the revelations on 27 November.
In a covert operation to disguise Mr Woodman’s involvement, at least one false invoice was used through Chelsea-based business The Mattress Shop to Spicer Thoroughbreds.
The mattress store was owned by Robert Halsall, son of Janet and Bob.
Woodman lobbyist Lorraine Wreford was also a former Casey mayor. She told the IBAC hearing that she ensured the campaign invoices were paid – and in a “covert” fashion.
“It was definitely designed that the candidates didn’t know where the money was coming from … apart from Cr Aziz.”
The false invoice for more than $4000 was found among election campaign materials in Ms Wreford’s home during an IBAC raid.
Another invoice to Spicer Thoroughbreds detailed $4500 of leaflet deliveries in October 2016 on behalf of candidates Wayne Smith, Damien Rosario, Amanda Stapledon, Rob Ward, Sam Aziz, Louise Berkelmans and Geoff Ablett.
Ms Wreford also identified candidates Shar Balmes and Mick Morland as beneficiaries. She wasn’t sure if councillor Milla Gilic was also funded.
None of the elected councillors declared the funding, the hearing was told.
“I still would have expected those councillors who received funding to either make enquiries or put in the register that they received funds but they are unsure who the benefactor was,” Ms Wreford said.
Ms Wreford was couriering thousands of dollars of cash to Sam Aziz from Mr Woodman – which admittedly seemed illegitimate, she told the hearing.
She was also the conduit as Cr Aziz sought Mr Woodman to pay off his $30,000 tax bill.
Mr Tovey asserted: “Didn’t you owe it to (Mr Woodman) then to say to him if you realised that this was a crooked arrangement that he really needed to think about his position?”
“I think in hindsight I should have absolutely said that to him,” Ms Wreford said.
“It wasn’t until 2018 that I really started feeling uncomfortable about it all.
“But everything was explained to me in a legitimate way.”
Ms Wreford said she thought at the time that Cr Aziz was trying to hide assets from the Family Court as part of his divorce. Cr Aziz had told him that his ex-wife knew of the payments, she said.
“Didn’t you ask yourself ‘How can I involve myself in what is an attempt to pervert the course of justice’?” Mr Tovey asked her.
“I just felt myself trapped in the middle between these two people,” Ms Wreford said.
“My understanding was it was just the repayment of the loan. That’s what I was told. Maybe I was not told accurate information.”
In the lead-up to a Casey mayoral election in 2018. Ms Wreford told Cr Aziz in a tapped phone call that Mr Woodman’s payments would stop if Cr Gary Rowe was voted in by councillors.
“If Gary gets in everything is off the table I am telling you now,” Ms Wreford told Cr Aziz.
Cr Amanda Stapledon – who has also been linked to Mr Woodman during the hearing – was ultimately elected.