Woodman ’strong armed’ property developer

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

A Leighton Properties development manager claims that his firm was extorted by “strong arm” tactics by developer John Woodman, an anti-corruption inquiry has heard.

Tom Kenessey told the IBAC Operation Sandon hearing that their business partner Mr Woodman threatened to have a Cranbourne West land rezoning proposal Amendment C219 “pulled” by Casey Council unless his retainer fee was doubled.

Mr Woodman’s planning consultant Megan Schutz’s retainer fee also doubled from $120,000 a year to $240,000, IBAC heard.

“There were some strong arm events that I suppose led us to feel that there was no choice but to pay retainers that wouldn’t normally otherwise be paid,” Mr Kenessey said.

“It was intimated that our rezoning would be at risk.”

Mr Woodman’s success fee was about $2 million. If the rezoning was successful, Mr Woodman wanted his company Watsons to be hired for the civil engineering consultancy work.

Between them, Leighton and the Kelly family owned 203 hectares of ‘greenfield’ parcels in the 400-hectare industrial-zone precinct. They were seeking to rezone the area to residential land.

Mr Woodman, who was representing the Kelly family, was hired by Leighton to navigate the proposal via Casey councillors, Mr Kenessey told IBAC.

Mr Woodman was known for having “the contacts” in Casey and the South-East.

He’d successfully lobbied for Casey projects such as Marriott Waters and Brompton Lodge – the latter was the inclusion of Green Wedge land inside the urban growth boundary.

In early 2014, Mr Woodman was expected to speak with Casey councillors and reported back they seemed “supportive”.

He had said he could get the rezoning done in 12 months, Mr Kenessey recalled.

Unknown to Mr Kenessey, Mr Woodman had emailed a briefing note to councillors Geoff Ablett, Sam Aziz and Amanda Stapledon on 3 February 2014.

The next day, an urgent closed-council motion was successfully moved by Mr Aziz for Casey to liaise with the owners – that is Leighton and the Kelly family – and investigate rezoning the land.

IBAC Commissioner Robert Redlich asked Mr Kenessey: “Mr Woodman engaged the councillors to pass this motion covering your land without your authority?”

“From my recollection, yes,” Mr Kenessey replied.

“We understood that they were just going to have an informal chat.”

Mr Kenessey said his first recollection of a motion was on 1 April 2014. Councillors then voted for a review of the land’s zoning.

Casey councillor and “close personal friend” Gary Rowe had an electoral fundraiser organised by Mr Woodman’s company Watsons.

But he wanted Leighton to get rid of Mr Woodman and Ms Schutz for a “considerable amount of time”, Mr Kenessey said.

“He thought they were a liability and (we) should just sack them.”

Mr Rowe had suggested that it was a “done deal” that he’d be mayor in coming years. But he lost out to Mr Aziz and Mr Ablett who Mr Rowe believed were “likely” corrupt, Mr Kenessey said.

“From my understanding Aziz and Rowe hated each other.

“We felt that even if Gary wanted to help us … I don’t think that Gary had the numbers.

“So I advised my executive that as a risk assessment we had to bow to John (Woodman) and try and get rid of him as soon as possible by the land being rezoned.”

By 2018, The Age published articles that sparked the IBAC inquiry into alleged corruption involving Casey councillors and Mr Woodman.

Mr Kenessey agreed with Counsel Assisting IBAC, Michael Tovey, that he should have heeded Mr Rowe’s advice.