A planning consultant admitted that she went too far in lobbying for developer John Woodman’s interests in City of Casey, an IBAC hearing was told.
Megan Schutz, a qualified lawyer, said she shouldn’t have coached Cr Sam Aziz with regular text messages during a council debate on the H3 intersection in Hall Road, Cranbourne West on 16 October 2018.
As she sat at home watching the live-stream of the meeting, she offered tactics such as “you need to read the SCWRAG letter” and “don’t take Rowe’s bait about Wolfdene”.
Ms Schutz told IBAC that she’d helped refine the mentioned letter from the Save Cranbourne West Residents Action Group (SCWRAG), a group she’d helped to set up with interested locals.
It was a “commercial interest dressed up in a community argument”, she said.
At one point during the vote, Ms Schutz texts that Cr Aziz’s arguments are “muddied”, and to stress that the community’s lives were being put at risk.
“On reflection I wouldn’t do this again,” she told the IBAC hearing on 4 December.
“I wouldn’t send text messages again. I’d provide my briefing note and that would be the end of it.
“I think what I did was advocate too hard for a position but I did not have any influence.”
Before the council meeting, Ms Schutz was tapped in a call spelling out the arguments not to defer the intersection works.
“So what – what is the recommendation that we’re seeking tonight?” Cr Aziz asks Ms Schutz.
“‘Cause I actually haven’t gone into my emails yet, I’ve just been flatout.”
Ms Schutz replies: “OK. So your recommendation tonight is that Council does not support the grant of secondary consent to defer the intersection works.”
Counsel assisting IBAC, Michael Tovey, asserted at an earlier hearing that Ms Schutz acted like a “ventriloquist expressing to Mr Aziz what he has to say to council about an issue which he hasn’t prepared at all”.
After the council meeting, Ms Schutz is recorded in a phone tap telling Mr Woodman that Cr Aziz didn’t stick to the “script”.
“I think we won,” Ms Schutz says – despite Cr Aziz doing a “crap job tonight”.
“He didn’t do what I asked him to do. Anyway, he’s an absolute fool that guy.”
She said: “If Aziz had just stuck to the f***ing script we wouldn’t have had the f***ery we had tonight.”
Under IBAC questioning, she denied that she thought of Cr Aziz as a “puppet”. It was typical “blokey” and “jocular” dialogue that she had with Mr Woodman.
National media coverage of the call had “completely obliterated” her professional reputation, she said.
“I’m not proud of it today because I’ve lost my ability to have an income for my family.
“I didn’t mean that about Cr Aziz. I thought it was a private conversation.”
Ms Schutz was reluctant to call the ‘script’ anything but “briefing notes” and a “speech”.
She didn’t agree that her intervention was “coaching” or “directing” Cr Aziz. She called it “lobbying” or “advocating”.
“I’m advocating for my client’s position but I can’t make them say something.”
Ms Schutz said she’d been instructed by her client Mr Woodman to brief councillors Aziz and Geoff Ablett between 2015 and 2019.
The pair of councillors are accused by IBAC of receiving $1.2 million from Mr Woodman for their support on planning decisions.
Ms Schutz was aware that Cr Ablett had a conflict of interest due to a race horse link with Mr Woodman.
She said the law prohibited Cr Ablett from voting on Woodman-related matters but not from lobbying other councillors behind the scenes.
She “perhaps naively” thought that she was instructed to brief Cr Aziz because he was not conflicted, she said.
Ms Schutz said she’d sat at meetings in which Mr Woodman had allocated political donations but he’d never asked her advice on the issue.
“It seems like I’m well and truly involved in briefing councillors but I honestly have not known they have been paid money and they’ve been bought.
“On reflection I think it should have crossed my mind.”