By Cam Lucadou-Wells
It was ‘not secret’ that a Cranbourne West residents action group was being funded and advised by property developers, planning consultant Megan Schutz has told an IBAC hearing.
IBAC has alleged that the Save Cranbourne West Residents Action Group (SCWRAG) was funded $193,000 by property developer John Woodman’s company Watsons and Ms Schutz’s firm Schutz Consulting.
Developer dollars were used to set up the group, pay the group’s leader as a consultant and to fund its legal representative.
“It was a commercial interest dressed up in a strong community safety argument,” Ms Schutz told IBAC in relation to the group and the developer’s “aligned” interests on the H3 intersection project.
“And yes, we were using the community as a basis for my client’s commercial interests.”
Ms Schutz helped set up SCWRAG. She was financed to do so by another developer Leighton Properties.
At the same time, she was a consultant for Mr Woodman’s Elysian Group which owned the Alarah estate in the area.
She also engaged with another active developer in Cranbourne West – Wolfdene, in which Mr Woodman’s son Heath was a partner.
Leighton also funded a barrister to represent SCWRAG at a Planning Panels Victoria hearing into the proposed Amendment C219 rezoning in Cranbourne West.
There was no requirement to disclose the arrangement to PPV, Ms Schutz told the hearing.
IBAC has heard that SCWRAG leader Ray Walker was paid $60,000 a year by Mr Woodman’s company – via Schutz Consulting as the conduit.
The consultancy job was to do “market research” in the South East.
Ms Schutz was involving in preparing a letter from SCWRAG to lobby Casey councillors ahead of a crucial planning vote on the H3 intersection in Hall Road, Cranbourne West on 16 October 2018.
She arranged for the letter to be provided to councillor Sam Aziz, who moved an alternative motion also provided by Ms Schutz that night, she told IBAC.
She said that the group’s community safety arguments in the letter “aligned” with her client’s commercial interest.
“Everyone knew that my client had aligned itself with the community. It wasn’t a secret.”
Counsel assisting IBAC, Michael Tovey, told Ms Schutz that “you didn’t want anybody to know that you were pushing this motion before the council”.
“I thought everyone did know,” Ms Schutz replied.
“I can’t recall saying to Councillor Aziz, ‘This is a big secret. Don’t tell anyone I’m briefing you.’”
Ms Schutz was also accused of “coaching” Sam Aziz “minute by minute” during the Hall Road debate – texting him instructions as she watched the live-streamed meeting at home.
She conceded that “people wouldn’t have known about the text messages”.
In one of the texts to Cr Aziz during the debate, she stated: “Nothing to do with Wolfdene. This is a request from the community only.”
“Literally read, (the words) look dishonest and they appear to be a lie,” Ms Schutz explained to the inquiry.
“What I actually meant, and it is in shorthand, was that the arguments in favour of the alternative recommendation were clothed in a community safety argument and there was … no mention of Wolfdene in them.”
Ms Schutz was asked about a tapped phone call with Mr Woodman, in which she says Mr Walker “would never, ever expose any of us”.
Feeling “under pressure”, she asked for extra time to reflect on the question.
She said that she thought it was referring to Mr Walker not exposing his work for Schutz to rival developer Dacland.
“But on reflection today, I mean, everyone knew that – everyone knew that Ray Walker was working with me in relation to the H3 intersection issue.”
She said that she’d been instructed to engage Ray and Valery Walker as lobbyists for their community.
Commissioner Robert Redlich asked if it was “unusual” for “a developer to engage the head of a community representative group and pay them to be advancing arguments which support the developer’s interests?”
Ms Schutz said: “I think a lot of community groups, where the community’s objectives align with a developer, you will find a developer is rescourcing them.”
She agreed that the law ought to require disclosure of the conflict of interest.
“But (for) incorporated associations … and non-registered lobbyists, there’s no rules around disclosure at the moment in the law.”